7 March 1916 – They’ll always be a Navy (Air Service)

The First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr Balfour) was speaking in the House of Commons today on naval estimates when he set out his views of the need for a Naval air service:

“It has been said by many people why, after all, should the Navy have an Air Service at all? I do not mean to touch even remotely upon the vexed question of whether there should or should not be a separate Minister for Air. I content myself with saying what I think is indisputable, that whether there be a separate Minister for Air or not, the Navy will always require a special service for its own purposes, however it be provided and whoever may superintend it. Its work is largely different from that of the Army. I do not deny that the Navy often does things which could be done by the Army, had the Army been at the moment provided with the necessary materials, but undoubtedly the Navy must have its share in air work when the operations are partly or wholly naval. The training of a naval airman is the same indeed as that of an Army airman in its early stages, but differentiates as time goes on. He has not to learn all the same things. He has to learn things which are perfectly useless to an Army airman during the ordinary course of his duties. No Army airman, for example, is required ever to use a seaplane. No Army airman need learn how to distinguish the various types of shipping, enemy and friendly, which have to be discriminated if he is to be a good scout over the sea. There are these and many other functions in which the training must be different for the two branches of the Service, and whether you put them ultimately under one Minister or not, that difference in my opinion never will be obliterated. If I have been fortunate enough to convince any sceptic that there must, therefore, be a separate Air Service under any circumstances, the next question is, have these Services been so organised as entirely to prevent what is called overlapping? Is there any overlapping in the work of the Army and the Navy? It would be a very strong order to say that there never has been any overlapping, but of one thing I am absolutely convinced, and it is that whatever may be true of the future, in the past it has been an immense gain that there has been two separate Departments dealing with all the nascent and early problems of this growing branch of warefare. It is all in its infancy. No one could tell you on the 5th March, 1916, what the developments will be on the 5th March, 1917. Nobody could have told you when war broke out in August, 1914, how in a year the type of the machine, the work of the machine, and the capabilities of the machine would have altered, and the very views we took on the whole Air Service would have suffered profound modification. Speaking for myself, I am quite certain that had the whole of this been left, for example, to the Army, immense developments in engine power and matters connected with the size and lifting power of the machines would have been undeveloped, and that not because the gentlemen connected with the Army Air Service were less competent than those connected with the Navy, but because the problem of dealing with heavy aeroplanes came before the Navy in a shape earlier and more insistent than it could come before the Army, in the very fact that you have to use a seaplane, which is always heavier than the lighter type of aeroplane. The question of developing engine power, the question of developing economy of petrol, and the problems connected with the rapid improvement of the internal combustion engine for flying purposes have gained beyond doubt from the fact that the Navy threw themselves into this task from their own point of view and with their own objects, to the immense advantage, in the end, both of the Navy and the Army. That is the conclusion to which I have arrived from such studies as I have been able to give to the matter. I need hardly say that this does not in any sense suggest that we ought not to establish such a Committee as the Prime Minister has in fact appointed, by which the question of supply as between the two Services can be properly arranged. I am dealing with far deeper questions than that, and in a sense with far more interesting questions. There may be rapid development, in the face of an active enemy, of various types of flying machines which the Navy and the Army alike require.  There is one branch of the Air Service which the Army have deliberately handed over to the exclusive patronage of the Navy. I mean the lighter-than-air craft. Here also there has been a great development since the War began. As the House knows, it was decided, rightly or wrongly, in years gone by—I think myself wrongly, though I certainly do not blame the people who came to that decision—that it was not worth our while to pursue the question of Zeppelins, and to deal with the complicated and costly question of Zeppelins. I do not believe that any prophet now living could say with confidence what the future relations between the Zeppelin and the heavier-than-air machine is going to be. Both are improving, and perhaps the improvement in the heavier-than-air machine is more rapid and more certain than the improvement of the Zeppelin. It may conceivably be that ten years hence people will refer to the Zeppelin as an antiquated instrument, and say, “You ought to entirely rely upon increasing the magnitude and the power of your heavier-than-air machines.” On that I make no prophecy, and I venture no forecast. All I say is that at this moment it is extremely desirable that we should have lighter-than-air machines, from the naval point of view—I only speak from the naval point of view—in order to supplement the efforts of our Fleet by machines for scouting, which, in many respects, and in favourable weather, are far more effective than the swiftest destroyer or the most powerful cruiser. Therefore we have done and we are doing our best to develop the lighter-than-air machine. The difficulty, to me rather an unexpected one—I am not talking of Zeppelins now, but of non-rigid types—is not so much in constructing the instrument as in housing it. In the present condition of labour throughout the country the length of time taken to build an adequate shed and shelter for these instruments is what is really checking their use. We find it easier to provide these lighter-than-air craft than to lodge them suitably. One further matter I must bring before the notice of the House, and that is the kite balloon. That also, I think, has been handed over by the Army to the Admiralty. It has undergone great and growing development. I do not know what the ultimate limits of its utility may be, but I am persuaded that we shall find more and more use for it at sea, and that the extraordinary change which has gone on in the last twelve months in the use of the kite balloon is symptomatic of the value which it will have, not merely in land operations, but in sea operations also.”

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