How the Royal Navy Lost Control of Its Own Air Power

David Hobbs

First World War Twentieth Century
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By 1918 the achievements of the Royal Naval Air Service, RNAS, were so impressive that Captain G W Steele USN, sent to the UK by the United States Navy General Board, reported that

‘so many ideas had been gained from the British that any discussion of the subject must consider their methods’.

By then, however, political pressure had forced the amalgamation of the RNAS with the Army’s much larger Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force and naval aviation began to decline. Why did this happen?

Lineup of RNAS Nieuport 11s, with a Nieuport 10 closest to the camera at their airfield at Dunkirk in February 1915.

The Gotha threat

Pressure on Lloyd George’s coalition government had mounted after attempted German bomber raids on London from May 1917. They achieved no quantifiable military success but alarmed politicians, press and the public.

Early attacks had failed even to find London but bombs were eventually dropped randomly on the East London docks where thousands of civilians came out onto the streets to watch the bombers rather than take shelter. A number were killed and the reaction can fairly be described as panic.

Times editorials declared that an aggressive British aerial policy would be the best answer and that an expansion of the air services to meet the new menace was required.

The Gotha gIV, Germany’s most famous World War One aircraft. It was these bombers that were able to strike London from the air.

Hopes that victory might be gained in 1917 had faded after mutiny in the demoralised French Army and the British fighting near Passchendaele in appalling conditions dispirited both politicians and public as it ground to a halt.

Fears about a renewed German U-boat offensive and the imminent collapse of the Russian Army added to a widespread feeling of despair. The South African General Jan Smuts was visiting London and Lloyd George asked him to join a committee studying air matters.

The Prime Minister’s health deteriorated, however, and Smuts became the de facto chairman. Whilst popular and presumed to be non-partisan, he lacked any knowledge of naval operations and there was no realistic oversight of his discussions.

These were limited in scope but, since he spoke with the authority of the Prime Minister, his pronouncements seem never to have been questioned. Unfortunately, he completely forgot to include the Royal Navy’s needs in either his discussions or his recommendations.

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Phantom Gothas

German bombing attacks on London lost momentum as defences improved and the German High Command concluded that they had failed. Unfortunately, Smuts appeared not to notice.

Lord Cowdray, Chairman of the Air Board, wrote one of the few papers to Smuts that have survived. He did not favour an independent aerial service created in a hasty and ill-informed manner but General Henderson’s paper advocated a new department that would direct a considerable force of bombers.

Lord Weir, an industrialist, claimed that British industry could deliver 15,914 aircraft engines by early 1918. This was a number 3,302 in excess of all existing requirements; the claim was taken for granted by Smuts and the non-existent bombers in which they might be fitted became linked in his imagination with Henderson’s proposed bombing force.

He decided, therefore, that there was an urgent need to create a new Air Ministry to direct the operation of these imaginary bombers. All other air matters were to be subsumed into it.

In reality, engine deliveries in early 1918 only reached 6,571; actually 4,041 less than the minimum needed to meet existing aircraft production contracts. There were no engines to equip Henderson’s imaginary bombers even if the industrial capacity had existed to manufacture them.

Smuts’ blind acceptance of these numbers and his recommendation that a draconian amalgamation of the two air services must be rushed though to create a strategic bombing campaign during 1918 were, therefore, both ill-considered and unnecessary.

Jan Smuts circa 1915
Jan Smuts circa 1915.

The ‘need’ for an independent bomber force

Another surviving paper was written by Rear Admiral Mark Kerr who quoted unsubstantiated foreign intelligence reports that Germany was manufacturing 4,000 bombers intended to destroy south-eastern England.

To retaliate he wanted 2,000 British bombers, fitted with the illusory surplus engines, under the direction of a new Air Ministry to be created quickly.

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Smuts might, conceivably, have avoided major change but the forceful claims that an independent bomber force was both possible and necessary convinced him otherwise.

No attempt was made to study the everyday activities of naval aircraft that were, by then, vital to Britain’s war effort and it is a sign of the strain under which Lloyd-George was struggling that Smuts’ theories were accepted without scrutiny.

At the stroke of a politician’s pen, the conspicuously successful RNAS was swept away and replaced by a system that involved a separate service co-operating with the Navy when its own commanders permitted and its own priorities allowed.

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Strong opposition

The Board of Admiralty strongly opposed Smuts but there was simply too much political momentum to allow rational counter-argument to prevail.

Surprisingly the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Beatty, accepted Smuts’ imaginary bombers and their proposed use at first. He regretted doing so within weeks, however, when he realised that the new independent air force was just that, an organisation with its own agenda that had no wish to have any of its resources controlled by the Grand Fleet or the Admiralty.

Beatty soon complained about the lack of air resources made available to his fleet by the new air force but by then it was too late. Objections based on reality from the Royal Navy counted for nothing against Lloyd George’s desire to make changes that would be obvious to the press and public. The Army also regretted the loss of its RFC.

RFC Recruiting poster
A recruiting poster for the RFC.

Smuts’ imaginary bomber force never happened because the British naval blockade prevented the Germans from completing more than 18 heavy bombers. By August 1918 Britain still had very few heavy bombers with less than a dozen on most missions and they suffered heavy casualties.

Smuts’ theory of an independent bomber campaign can only be described as a chimera that failed. The loss of the Royal Navy’s air arm to pay for it was to cripple its operational effectiveness for decades to come but until 1939 few politicians noticed.

Commander David Hobbs MBE Royal Navy (Retired)

David Hobbs is an award winning author and naval historian with an international reputation. He has written twenty two books and is just completing another.

He has lectured on naval subjects worldwide. Served in the Royal Navy for 33 years and is qualified as both a fixed and rotary wing pilot and his log book contains 2,300 hours with over 800 carrier deck landings.

His extensive naval aviation experience gives his latest book ‘‘The Dawn of Carrier Strike’.‘ an authentic edge, published by Pen and Sword Publishing.

The Dawn of the Carrier Strike, by David Hobbs

David Hobbs