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  • Writer's pictureNeil Datson

Let them fly logs!



The aeronautical battering ram

Royal Air Force Quarterly, April 1937


Through the 1930s there was, within the pages of the Royal Air Force Quarterly, a simmering debate about what formations bombers should fly in, and how they should be best attacked by fighters. The authors – most of whom were RAF officers – were generally of the view that bomber formations would be able to defend themselves successfully, and that attacking them would prove difficult, possibly even close to suicidal.

 

With the benefit of hindsight it is hard to see any virtue or foresight in the opinions expressed. That, of course, is a universal problem with the foresight – hindsight dichotomy. One is never wrong, the other rarely right. When predictions seem especially outlandish it can seem ungenerous to submit those who were brave enough to commit them to paper to overmuch post facto scrutiny. Nevertheless, if we are going to understand what happened in the past and – who knows? – even learn lessons that have value for the future, we should surely attend to what people thought and try to understand why they thought it, however wrong they later proved to be.

 

There were certainly some very curious suggestions made in the quarterly. One of the strangest articles was written by retired Air-Commodore John Chamier in July 1931: ‘The Heavy Fighting Aeroplane’. Chamier suggested that the RAF should develop larger and more robust fighters that could be fitted with long range artillery, because the curtain of defensive machine gun fire put up by a formation of bombers would be too intense for fighters to penetrate, and they would therefore need to mount their attacks from a greater distance. The immediate response to that suggestion might be that bombers should be armed with heavier weapons too, in order to defend themselves against heavy fighters. Chamier dismissed that possibility: ‘The bomber . . . can spare only a limited amount of military load for guns and ammunition . . .’[1] He did foresee that one possible outcome was that bomber formations would be escorted by long-range fighters armed with similarly powerful guns. Quite where, in terms of weight of ordnance, he expected the arms race in the sky to finish up wasn’t made clear – mental visions of aeroplanes mounting 15-inch guns are doubtless a bit too silly – but he clearly expected air combat to become more like sea fighting, as he briefly referenced the Battles of Coronel and the Falklands. He felt sufficiently confident of his reasoning to conclude:

 

‘It has been shown, then, that the heavy fighter is essential for the defence of a country against air bombardment and equally essential for the escort of the bombarding aircraft. It is strange that it has been so long neglected. . . . the light fighter is relegated to a weapon of opportunity and the pursuit of the easier prey, the lone aeroplane.’[2]

 

While his article provoked a few replies he received little immediate support, although his ideas were, in some measure, endorsed by an article published in January 1936. It was a summary of the ideas of Commandant Le Roux, which had been published by a French air journal. In its general conclusion ‘Armament and Air Gunnery’ it proposed that fighting aircraft would be fitted with one of three sizes of weapon, according to the tactical role that they were to fulfil. The largest of the three would be:

 

Heavier Long-Range Gun (45 to 60 mm. cal.). – For day operations only, at ranges of 2,500-4,500 metres, against heavy bombing formations whose slow evolutions permit of adequate ranging in spite of the gun’s comparatively slow rate of fire.’ [Original italics.][3]

 

Strange as Chamier’s and Le Roux’s ideas seem to us today, they are surely outdone by an anonymous author who was published in April 1937, just over three years before the Battle of Britain started: ‘Ramming Attack Against Bombers’. The author went into some detail, providing plans for his specialist machines. They would have to be fast, but although they were to work as interceptors they would have no armament at all, not even .303 machine guns, so that extra weight could be dedicated to protecting the pilot with an armoured bulkhead, fitted in front of the cockpit. Under the heading ‘Method of Attack’ he outlined the tactics to be used:

 

‘The aim of the rammer aircraft will be to collide with and carry away the controlling surfaces or the supporting surfaces of the bomber, the most vulnerable target being the tail unit.

‘The rammers would work in formation if a formation of enemy bombers was approaching, and by single aircraft in the case of night raids by single aircraft.

‘. . . The best attack for the rammer aircraft would be a steep dive from about 1,500 feet vertically above the target. The pilot would have no difficulty in positioning himself as he has a very clear field of vision directly downwards due to his sitting at the rear end of the fuselage. He should aim to miss the tail unit by about 60 yards, flatten out not more than 100 feet below and ram the tail unit from below.’[4]

 

He thought that bombers fitted with machine guns would have little opportunity to fire at ramming interceptors if they used that approach correctly, although he accepted that bombers armed with heavier weaponry could have a better chance:

 

‘Bombers equipped with large-calibre defensive armament with definite stopping power, or firing an explosive shell capable of breaking up the rammer aircraft, would probably be successful; but the high speed of the target, and the relatively low rate of fire of large calibre guns would make successful shooting very difficult.’[5]

 

Having made a successful attack the pilot would bail out of his cheap, mass produced, aeroplane, and doubtless soon be ready to take to the skies again in a new one. The author briefly referenced the past for authority:

 

‘Throughout military history, a new weapon has always been hailed by its disciples as irresistible, although an adequate defence against it has always subsequently been developed. In due course an effective defence may be evolved against rammer aircraft, but until aeroplane design is radically changed, these attacks, if brought home, will always bring down the enemy bomber.’[6]

 

If the ideas promoted by Chamier and the anonymous author had been published at any time since 1945 they would have been immediately dismissed as fantastical nonsense. Yet in the 1930s they could not only appear in print but in the RAF’s own house journal, and must have been at least been mulled over by some its officers. How did such outlandish ideas manage to escape ridicule?

 

Underpinning all opinions on the subject, across the nation as whole as well as within the service, was the conviction that, as Stanley Baldwin told the House of Commons in November 1932: ‘I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through, . . .’[7]

 

It is important to remember that Baldwin wasn’t saying anything that was in the least controversial. The fiction that air defence was impossible dominated British public and political discourse throughout the 1930s, although the remembrance of it has since faded out of our popular history under the more brilliant aura of Battle of Britain mythology. Its universal acceptance was brought home to me by my father who, as a 13 year old boy, was in a village church in Kent when war was declared. A man entered by the west door and walked up the aisle to the vicar who, having been told the grim news, briefly led the congregation in prayer before suggesting that they return to their homes. Naively, I asked my father why? Didn’t everybody know that it was only the Phoney War that had started, and there was certainly time enough to finish Mattins? The reason, he explained, was that everybody expected the sky to be dark with bombers within hours, if not minutes, and that by the time that night fell many of their houses would be destroyed. Absurd as that picture is, it is one that the whole British public believed in 1939.

 

That conviction had been planted in the minds of Baldwin and parishioners in Kent by the RAF itself, aided by its friends and supporters in the press. And far from being a lesson drawn from history, it depended on a coordinated effort to ignore any and every piece of historical evidence that was available. The first step was to take 1 April 1918, the day that the RAF came into being, as some sort of ‘air power day zero’, before which nobody – or at least no Briton – had appreciated how important it was or what it could do whereas, after the great day, everything was mysteriously transformed.

 

The press, whose campaigning had really brought the RAF into being, was its hand-maiden in that great feat of national amnesia.

 

Forgetting everything that happened before 1 April allowed them to disregard the comprehensive defeat of the German bombing assault on Britain by the London Air Defence Area (LADA) – a joint service command led by Major General Edward Ashmore – one of the most effective demonstrations ever made that the bomber could be stopped. Against that, the British bombing of German towns and cities in 1918 by Independent Force, RAF, was championed: as a war-winning campaign.

 

Quite how that particular effort – which was a tale of almost unmitigated failure – was turned into a military success story was a little more involved. Firstly, as it had the advantage of being fought over eastern France and western Germany, rather than the homeland, its heavy losses could be hidden. The newspapers scarcely mentioned them, but rather confined themselves to publishing British propaganda about its doings. As it had been instituted in response to a press campaign it wasn’t in the least surprising that they loyally copied out the Independent Force’s press officers’ accounts of its successes. Furthermore, by a twist of fate, Hugh Trenchard became its commander in June 1918. In all essentials the archetypal late-Victorian soldier, Trenchard believed in taking the offensive whenever possible, more or less regardless of his own losses. He was not the sort of man to weigh evidence or be assailed by self-doubt. He insisted, as a condition of his accepting the post, that he couldn’t be expected to report to Frederick Sykes, the new Chief of Air Staff. Normal military protocol was by-passed in Trenchard’s favour. He was put directly under William Weir, the President of the Air Board. For his part Weir was an industrialist with no military experience. Furthermore, by then he – like many civilians – was an enthusiastic bomber, and in consequence was no more inclined to ask probing questions than the editor of the Daily Mail. As the responsible member of the War Cabinet he directed air policy. Every possible circumstance had combined to promote an incompetent campaign, and cover-up its failings.

 

After the war limited efforts were made to find out what had actually been achieved but they were wholly under the control of the RAF itself. A small team of intelligence officers visited Germany to find out exactly what damage – if any – the bombers had done. Their findings were too embarrassing even to be disseminated within the service. They were hidden away in its secret files, to be finally released under the 50 year rule. If anybody within air intelligence had actually wanted to study the campaign seriously he would certainly have been stymied by Trenchard’s re-appointment as Chief of Air Staff in February 1919. Trenchard was not the sort of man to have permitted any campaign that he had led to be critically scrutinised by a junior.

 

So, far from making any serious efforts to uncover what lessons could and should have been learned from the air fighting of 1914-18 the RAF made no attempt at historical analysis. Its official history, The War in the Air, which was published in six volumes, is a detailed and wearying narrative. In so far as it passes any kind of judgement on how the war was fought it strongly hints that Trenchard, as Royal Flying Corps commander in France from August 1915 and later Independent Force commander, was an unusually able and prescient man. Nothing does quite so much to lift any man’s grades as being gifted sole authority to mark his own homework.

 

All the RAF’s claims about its bombing campaign, false as they were, were echoed by the Daily Mail, the country’s best-selling newspaper. In 1922 it told its readers:

 

‘The strength of the organised Air Force is ludicrously inadequate, and is so low as to paralyse both our Navy and Army and to leave London defenceless.

‘For it should be clearly understood that the sole effective defence against air attack to-day is the power to take reprisals against an assailant. It was the fear of reprisals alone that deterred the Germans in late 1918, when they had perfected and multiplied their aircraft and bombs, from burning London and asphyxiating its people. They were plainly warned that British aircraft would treat Berlin and the Rhine cities in the same way, and they were wise enough to refrain.’[8]

                                          

The reality of the bombing campaigns had been very, very, different. Progressively weakened by Ashmore’s LADA command, which was continually enhanced under his leadership, the German attacks petered out through the winter of 1917-18, ending in early March. One last – despairing – effort was made to bomb London on the night of 19/20 May 1918; before Independent Force was established. It was routed.

 

The inventor of the ramming aeroplane declared that new weapons had ‘always been hailed . . . as irresistible’ before effective counter-measures had been developed and deployed. In Britain, at least, the bomber was hailed as irresistible even as the air fighting showed it to be anything but. No matter. Britain’s strategic bombing policy was invented and championed by the newspapers, most especially the Daily Mail. It, and its proprietor Viscount Northcliffe, hovered over Lloyd George’s premiership like an insatiable vampire. Placating the beast was always his first concern. Given the conditions of 1917-18, and of how the war’s history was written in the years immediately following, it isn’t in the least surprising that by the 1930s more or less everybody in the country had been persuaded that bombers were as good as unstoppable. It isn’t in the least surprising that some professional airmen were coming up with cranky ideas about how they could be stopped. The reality of the earlier war’s campaigns had been that by the war’s end even Trenchard – careless as he was of his men’s lives – didn’t dare to send his day squadrons on any but short range missions. That reality was hidden from the RAF’s own people every bit as much as it was from the general public.

 

In his ignorance of what had actually happened in 1918 Chamier introduced the proposal of ‘The Heavy Fighting Aeroplane’ by first explaining:

 

‘Bombing formations during the war penetrated to some depth into enemy territory without the aid of their own fighters, whose range did not permit them to accompany the bombers, and reached their objective with comparatively little loss.’[9]

 

His ignorance is not to be mocked but rather pitied. Nobody can solve a practical problem if he has been duped in advance; Chamier and the inventor of the ramming aeroplane had been duped by ‘the father of the RAF’ himself. Under Trenchard’s watch the data was corrupted. Aided and abetted as he was by the media, as well as the machinery of government, the whole nation danced to his false tune. The price that it paid in the war that followed was a terrible one, but at least Britain’s fighter pilots weren’t expected to go into battle sitting astride aeronautical battering rams.

 


[1] Air-Commodore J A Chamier, ‘The Heavy Fighting Aeroplane’. Royal Air Force Quarterly, vol 2, no 3, July 1931, p 423.

[2] Ibid, p 425.

[3] ‘Armament and Air Gunnery’. Royal Air Force Quarterly, vol 7, no 1, Jan 1936, p 25.

[4] ‘Ramming Attack Against Bombers’. Royal Air Force Quarterly, vol 8, no 2, April, 1937, p 143-45.

[5] Ibid, p 146.

[6] Ibid, p 145.

[7] Stanley Baldwin. Hansard, 632, 10 November 1932.

[8] ‘We Must Have an Air Inquiry’. Daily Mail, 3 August 1922.

[9] Air-Commodore J A Chamier, ‘The Heavy Fighting Aeroplane’. Royal Air Force Quarterly, vol 2, no 3, July 1931, p 422.

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