Prologue: The Awakening
Monday, the twenty-third of July 1934, was a day of deep national preoccupation. At Leeds the implacable Bradman was completing a remorseless triple century, but there was always the chance of rain, and the fate of the Ashes still hung in the balance. While affairs of such moment were in issue a debate in the House of Lords—a mere incident in the game of politics—naturally attracted little attention. It was, nevertheless, an important debate; for it vitally concerned the future of the Royal Air Force, and therefore that of the country.
Four days previously the Government had announced its intention of increasing the Royal Air Force by forty-one squadrons within five years. Motions of censure had at once been tabled in both Houses; and to the critics in the Lords now fell the honour of proceeding to the charge. ‘What is the object of this sensational increase ... ?’ demanded one of their number. ‘Where is the imminent danger? ... I do not believe that there has been a time when nations have been so intent on internal policy as they are today. You see that wherever you turn. We find that the various changes that have been going on in Germany are of such character as to make internal questions the one interest at the moment ...’ ‘What is the reason?’ cried another outraged voice’ ‘what is the war? I will not discuss France, but if it is Germany, it is only right to point out that Germany is the one power in Europe which has unconditionally offered to abolish air warfare ...’
Though the critics had perhaps some excuse for imagining that internal questions were the one interest of the moment in Germany, since the slaughter of Röhm and his associates three weeks earlier had left the Nazis with a wide field for domestic reconstruction, their Lordships were not impressed by this argument, and negatived the motion of censure by 54 votes to 9. Two days later Hitler’s capacity for simultaneous activity in more than one direction was strikingly demonstrated by events in Vienna, where an attempted putsch did not fail for lack of a murdered Chancellor.
It was now the turn of the Commons. On Monday, 30th July, the Lord President of the Council rose to rebut the charge that the
Government had entered upon ‘... a policy of rearmament neither necessitated by any new commitment, nor calculated to add to the security of the nation ...’. The barometer, the speaker complained had never been stable. There was a restless spirit abroad, while our defences, it was rumoured in the whispering gallery of Europe, were so small as to offer but little contribution to collective security. For eight years disarmament negotiations had proceeded, for two and a half years the Disarmament Conference had been sitting, and though we had not abandoned hopes of a pact we could not afford to wait indefinitely while others reorganized and increased their air forces. France, Italy, Belgium, the United States and Russia had all recently taken steps in this direction; as for Germany, where the position was difficult to estimate, it was at least certain that ‘the greatest interest’ was being taken in aviation.
Thus far the Lord President had confined himself to reasons of a general nature, and had been careful to avoid naming any potential aggressor. Up to this point it was perhaps possible to agree with The Times, which considered that Mr. Baldwin sounded ‘sincere but a little disjointed’. The Lord President, however, rarely spoke without letting fall, either by accident or design, some phrase which compelled attention. As his speech drew to a close he referred once more to the spirit increasingly evident in the world, ‘a spirit which, if it became powerful enough, might mean the end of all that we in this country value and which we believe makes our life worth living’. ‘Let us never forget this,’ Mr. Baldwin then continued; since the day of the air, the old frontiers are gone. When you think of the defences of England you no longer think of the chalk cliffs of Dover; you think of the Rhine.’ ‘That,’ he added after a loud ‘Hear, Hear!’ from the agreeably startled Sir Austen Chamberlain, ‘is where our frontier lies.’
The Lord President’s remark, which—as a later speaker prophesied—soon travelled from one end of the world to the other, was clearly significant. In fact it reflected the conclusion, reached a few days earlier, that developments in Germany warranted not only the expansion of the Royal Air Force, but the creation of a British Expeditionary Force primarily intended for service on the Continent. To critics uninformed of this chain of cause and effect so blunt a statement came as a bolt from the blue. ‘We want to know what is this increased danger,’ demanded the Opposition. The Government might do lip service to collective security, but at the back of their minds there was always a belief in ‘the old anarchic principle of self-defence’. Besides, actual defence against the air menace was impossible, since, in the Lord President’s own words on an earlier occasion, ‘the bomber will
always get through ... the only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves’. In sum, the projected expansion of the Royal Air Force was not only inopportune, but also likely to be ineffectual. The Opposition standpoint was therefore clear: ‘We deny the proposition that an increased British Air Force will make for the peace of the world, and we reject altogether the claim to parity.’
The voice of reality was overdue. It came in those ripe and chesty tones which in later days were so often to rally and inspire the nation. The honourable Member for Epping, untrammelled by the reticences of office, plunged to the heart of things. We were a country of extraordinary vulnerability to air attack, ‘with our enormous Metropolis here, the greatest target in the world, a kind of tremendous fat cow, a valuable fat cow tied up to attract the beasts of prey’. We were exposed to a specific danger, the danger of Germany. Since precise information on this subject was not forthcoming from official quarters, he proposed to venture upon ‘some broad facts’ which he would be delighted for the Government to contradict. He would therefore assert, first, that Germany, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, already possessed a military air force nearly two-thirds as strong as our existing home defence force: secondly, that at the present rate of expansion, even if the proposals for increasing the Royal Air Force were approved, the German Air Force would nearly equal our home defence force in numbers and efficiency by the end of 1935, and would be substantially stronger in 1936: and finally, that once the Germans had established a lead, we might never overtake them. In civil aircraft readily convertible to military uses, in trained pilots and in glider pilots, Germany already far surpassed us. ‘Nothing,’ Mr. Churchill concluded, ‘would give me greater pleasure than to learn that I have discovered another mare’s nest ... but unless these facts can be contradicted, precisely and categorically, it seems to me that our position is a very serious one, and that not only should we brush aside a vote of censure on this small increase, but that we should urge a much greater degree of action, both in scale and speed, upon the responsible Ministers.’
During the following four hours of discussion these assertions remained entirely uncontradicted from either side of the House. But if facts were neglected, verbal portraiture was not, and Mr. Churchill was depicted by the Opposition first as a medieval baron, then, somewhat more imaginatively, as holding the reins of the Apocalypse. His assertions attracted only one official reference. In winding up the debate the Foreign Secretary (Sir John Simon) declined to make ‘statements which would amount to charges,’ but felt himself free
to say that Germany’s interest in air development was ‘very marked’.
At 11 p.m. the House divided: the Ayes 60, the Noes 404. The Royal Air Force was assured of its forty-one squadrons. England was stirring from her slumbers.
Forbidden to maintain military or naval air forces and at first closely controlled in civil aviation, the Germans had nevertheless remained obstinately air-minded. Even when Allied restrictions were at their height, gliding, soaring and flying light aeroplanes had flourished under the name of sport, and experienced pilots had occupied army posts in the Ministry of Defence. At that period German aircraft manufacturers and designers, stifled by the oppressive atmosphere of Occupied Territory, had found the air of Sweden, Turkey, Switzerland and Italy more conducive to the exercise of their skill. But when the Paris Agreement of 1926 withdrew the limitations on the construction of civil aircraft and the Inter-Allied Control Commission departed in 1927 the way was clear; the nest was no longer under the watchful eye of strangers, and Claude Dornier, Ernst Heinkel and others quickly came home to roost.
Since Germany was still forbidden to manufacture or maintain military aeroplanes, the public products of the German aircraft firms were still for some time purely commercial. Even so, they frequently exhibited possibilities of another kind. The Junkers 52, for instance, operated as a bomber in the Spanish Civil War, while the Heinkel 111, first produced in 1932 as a ten-seater passenger aircraft, also proved well adapted to martial use. In fact the protean properties of these and other German aircraft of the time call to mind the contemporary German labourer who, assembling a set of spares which his wife had induced him to steal from a perambulator factory, found that they kept coming out as a machine-gun. German civil aircraft might be built as airliners, but they kept coming out as bombers.
While the German aircraft firms revelled in their new-found liberty of design, General von Seeckt kept pace at the Ministry of Defence. The key move was the establishment of one of his nominees as head of the Civil Aviation Department in the Ministry of Transport; that done, there was no difficulty in arranging for military pilots to be trained in secret sections of the civil flying schools. By 1927 an air-armament programme for the years 1927–1931 had been agreed between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Transport, and in the following year a clandestine flying training centre for regular army officers was opened at Lipezk, in Russia. This school produced not only pilots—bomber, fighter and reconnaissance—but also observers
and air gunners. Through its various courses in the years 1928–1931 there passed many of the officers who later held high rank in the German Air Force
Meantime, German civil aviation had been strengthened by the formation, in 1926, of the Lufthansa. Enjoying a monopoly of internal German traffic and a large government subsidy, the new organization soon established an enviable position among European airlines. But its airfields, experimental establishments, signals organization and meteorological facilities were naturally susceptible of a double use, while its schools and pilots readily lent themselves from the first to military training. Significantly enough its first chairman was Erhard Milch, later to rank inferior only to Göring in command of the German Air Force. If the Reichswehr was one parent of the infant Luftwaffe, the Lufthansa was certainly the other.
The tempo thus far had been nothing more than andante, with an extended rallentando during the worst of the economic crisis. But now the baton was to pass to another hand—a hand which rarely called for less than molto vivace. From the advent to power of Hitler in January 1933, the secret development of the German Air Force was immensely accelerated. Within three months Germany boasted an Air Ministry—nominally, of course, to control civil aviation. The newly appointed Air Minister was Hermann Göring, whose qualifications included flying service with von Richthofen, experience of commercial airlines (and nursing homes) in Sweden, an early Party ticket, a superficial bonhomie, and a fundamental ruthlessness.
Under Göring and his deputy Milch, aided on the technical side by the famous ‘ace’ and stunt-flyer Udet, the basic organization of the Lufthansa and the secret Air Force grew apace. So, too, did the aircraft factories; existing firms were encouraged by loans and large orders, and new firms—or old ones like the locomotive company of Henschel, the shipping company of Blohm and Voss—were attracted into the industry. By 1934 military aircraft were coming off the production lines in quantity. Not all were designed for combat; since rapid development was the order of the day, a large number of training machines was required, and Milch’s programme of over 4,000 aircraft for the period January 1934–September 1935 called for 1,760 elementary trainers in addition to 1,863 operational types. It is noteworthy that of this programme, which ran until January 1935 before it was superseded by something bigger and better, only 115 aircraft were earmarked for the Lufthansa. Over the whole of 1934 an average rate of production of 160 aircraft a month was achieved. So it continued until March 1935, when, with Hitler fortified by the Chancellorship and the Oath of Allegiance, the Saar plebiscite
safely over, and a convenient diversion for other Powers looming ahead in Abyssinia, the time was deemed ripe to bring into the open the units which had lain concealed in the Flying Clubs and the Army and the Storm Troops, and to declare to the world the existence of the reborn German Air Force.
How things were managed on the training side may be seen from the early career of Adolf Galland, the distinguished fighter pilot and Inspector of the German fighter forces. Galland was already well known at the age of seventeen for his gliding exploits. Determined to become a Lufthansa pilot when he left school in 1932, he applied for admission to the German Airline Pilot School and found that some 20,000 others had the same ambition. After various tests which reduced the 20,000 to 100, the youthful aspirant was then subjected to intensive examination—a matter of some ten days of various physical and mental ordeals—and finally gained a place among the successful twenty. Posted to a training establishment he soon found that it sheltered a secret flying course on heavy aircraft for ‘discharged’ army officers. Many of his companions failed to attain the necessary standards, but Galland survived the rigours of the course and was summoned with a few others to the school headquarters in Berlin. Here he was asked if he would undergo a secret training course for military aviators. Readily agreeing, he was sent to an airfield near Munich, where he applied himself to military subjects, aviation history, formation flying, air combat and air-to-ground firing. The supervisor of his studies was a product of the clandestine school in Russia.
Still on the role of the Lufthansa, but already initiated into military training, Galland in May 1933 was next bidden to a meeting of some seventy young airmen, most of whom were in the Army. The speaker at the gathering was Göring, who invited those present to a ‘marvellous’ course of fighter training with the Italian Air Force. Nothing loth, Galland joined the party and submitted to two months of inefficient instruction in Italy, bored by the intensive security precautions and the consequent lack of feminine society, and vexed by the acquisitive nature of the Italian orderlies. Returning to Germany he put in some fifty hours of blind flying on multi-engined transport aircraft, then in October 1933 began work as second pilot on a scheduled Lufthansa route. Shortly afterwards he received, and accepted, an invitation to enter the Army in preparation for a career in the secret Air Force. With his basic infantry training course completed by the summer of 1934, he was discharged from the Army, granted an Air Force rank and posted to a secret Air Force Training School. There, to his great pleasure, he was selected for
fighters. In February 1935, in common with the rest of the school, he paraded to listen to Göring. The occasion consisted of a warning that the German Air Force would soon be brought into the open, and a preview, on the corpulent person of its Chief, of the uniform of the new Service. The following month, when the existence of the German Air Force was publicly announced, Galland started duty with a fighter squadron.
By July 1934, when Mr. Churchill made his assertions in the House, a secret Air Force thus undoubtedly existed in Germany. Indeed, the knowledge of its existence, and still more of its intended development, were what had stimulated the Government to undertake the expansion of the Royal Air Force. The information in the possession of the Ministerial Commission on Disarmament, on whose recommendations—ironically enough—the Cabinet were now acting, showed that the German Air Force already comprised Area Commands, a Schools Command and at least one purely operational Command, while Army Cooperation and Naval Commands were projected for the future. In regard to strength, it was calculated that Germany possessed some 400 purely military aircraft, some 250 readily convertible types and some 1,450 civil and training aircraft, with a supporting industry capable of turning out at least 100 aircraft a month. It was also believed that manufacture of bombs and aircraft guns was proceeding at a comparable pace. More alarming still was the future programme, many details of which had conveniently found their way from the new Air Ministry in Berlin to the older one in London. In this respect, it was thought that by October 1935 the Germans ‘should be able to put into the air 1,000 military machines or more’.
All this information was accurate enough for practical purposes. We now know that in December 1934 the German Air Force numbered 1,888 aircraft, of which 584 were operational types, the remainder trainers and miscellaneous. This concurs reasonably well with our contemporary estimate of 550 operational aircraft in October. On the other hand, we were not at that date aware of the full extent to which a large and efficient training organization was being built up inside the secret Air Force, as opposed to a looser form of training organization outside. We were therefore inclined to underrate the capacity of the Germans for the rapid formation of Air Force units in the future.
How far did these developments in Germany approach our own air strength? The Royal Air Force, with a first-line strength of 3,300 aircraft in 1918, had withered away in the post-war resettlement until by 1922 it stood at a tenth of its former size. This process had by then
gone so far, and pacification of Europe was so little achieved that substantial additions to our air strength at home had been approved. The following year, alarmed at the increasing danger of a clash with the French over the Ruhr, the Government had accepted the principle that ‘in addition to meeting the essential air power requirements of the Navy, Army, Indian and overseas commitments, British air power must include a Home Defence Air Force of sufficient strength adequately to protect us against air attack by the strongest air force within striking distance of this country’. This belated recognition of the obvious came at a date when we could exhibit at home a grand total of eight squadrons, of which four were allocated to cooperation with the Navy and one to cooperation with the Army, leaving three for Home Defence proper. A scheme was therefore approved to create in the next five years a Home Defence Force of fifty-two squadrons, divided roughly in the proportion of two bombers to one fighter—for counter-offensive operations were rightly regarded as an essential element of defence. The necessary additions were made regularly until 1925, but by then the doves of peace were at last airborne. More, they returned from the waters of Locarno bearing small, but perceptible, sprigs of olive, whereupon the Government promptly decided to defer completion of the 52-squadron scheme from 1928 to 1936. By March 1932, under this delayed programme, the total of Home Defence squadrons had crept up to 42 (of which 13 were non-regular), but in the next two financial years no further squadrons were formed—a gesture inspired by the existence of the Disarmament Conference, and convenient enough in the midst of the economic crisis. At forty-two squadrons, or 488 first-line aircraft, the Home Defence Force thus stood when Germany’s progress in the air startled the Government into renewed action.
In addition to the forty-two squadrons of the Air Defence of Great Britain, as the Command which embraced them was called, the Royal Air Force at home included four flying-boat squadrons for cooperation with the Navy, and five reconnaissance squadrons for cooperation with the Army. Overseas, there were six squadrons in Egypt, the Sudan and Palestine, eight in India, five in Iraq, three in the Far East, one at Aden and one at Malta. Sufficient to secure our imperial position and to maintain internal security against purely tribal or local action, the overseas squadrons were obviously inadequate for the vast areas over which they would operate in a major war. Still less could they be summoned home to strengthen Air Defence of Great Britain. They could not, accordingly, be regarded as available to oppose the German Air Force, or numbered in any comparison of strengths with Germany. This applied also to the
Fleet Air Arm of twelve squadrons and six flights, which at that date was still part of the Royal Air Force, but which would serve afloat wherever the manifold duties of the Navy demanded. The Home Defence squadrons, and the Home Defence squadrons alone, were those on which we could count to oppose, offensively and defensively, a German air assault against this country. Even this calculation, however, was provisional; for Home Defence as a title described only the primary, and not the total, role of these squadrons. In various contingencies they might be sent overseas, notably to support an Expeditionary Force or to implement the Defence Plan for India.
In comparing the German Air Force with our Home Defence squadrons alone, and in omitting consideration of overseas squadrons and the Fleet Air Arm, Mr. Churchill was thus setting up an accurate standard. It is clear, too, that the purely operational aircraft in Germany numbered, in July 1934, at least two-thirds of the first line strength of our Home Defence squadrons. This, however, was a very different matter from the Germans possessing at that date, as Churchill asserted, a military air force nearly two-thirds as strong as our Home Defence Force; for few of the German military aircraft were as yet formed into complete units, and the Germans were still deficient in most of the items which constitute an Air Force as opposed to a collection of aircraft and pilots.
In July 1934 the position was thus dangerous, but not desperate. The Royal Air Force was still considerably stronger than the secret Luftwaffe. The Government, recognizing the menace of a rearming Germany, had begun to look to its defences. Everything now depended on the vigour with which this was done. Was the lead to be kept, and increased—or relinquished? Was the sleeper fully awake—or was the sandman’s dust still in his eyes.
The next five years were to tell.