Tag Archives: War Cabinet

16 October 1917 – An Air Ministry at last

Today in the House of Commons, e Chancellor, Andrew Bonar Law announced that

“A Bill to constitute an Air Ministry has been prepared and will shortly be introduced.”

It appears that that this was a last minute decision, and the Government gave into pressure from MPs and the wider public. Only the day before, the War Cabinet had expressed misgivings whether it would be possible to form an Air Ministry during the war without causing serious dislocation, and subsequently decided to make a cautious announcement in Parliament that a Bill would be introduced to co-ordinate the air services and provide for the eventual setting up of an Air Ministry’.

To cover up the indecision, the War Cabinet further decided that an Air Policy Committee of the War Cabinet should be formed, under the chairmanship of Lieutenant-General Smuts, to advise the Cabinet pending the establishment of an Air Ministry.

Prior to that there had been considerable public criticism of the failure to make an announcement following the publication of the recommendations of the Smuts committee.

There was also disagreement within Government about the way forward. At its meeting on 21 September the War Cabinet had considered announcing to the Press the decision to form a separate air service, but had deferred the question.

The question was again raised by Lieutenant-General Smuts at a Cabinet meeting on 8 October, at which Lloyd George said he had consulted Holt Thomas, who had had considerable experience in aeronautical matters, and his opinion was that the time was not yet ripe for the formation of an Air Ministry, and that an announcement in the Press would therefore be premature. After much discussion the Cabinet decided to adjourn the debate to give opportunity for Lieutenant-General Smuts to look further into the matter.

On 10 October Admiral Mark Kerr was told by Lord Cowdray that it was almost certain no independent bombing force to attack Germany would be formed. The admiral had, after making a close study of the German air position, reached the conclusion that the Germans were giving priority to the building of aeroplanes, and that a large-scale bombing campaign against England must be anticipated. He therefore addressed to Lord Cowdray a forceful memorandum pointing out “the extraordinary danger of delay in forming the Air Ministry and commencing on a proper Air Policy”.

So after a long period of procrastination the Government has finally been forced into a decision and the new Air Ministry and consequently an independent air service (which would become the RAF) will be formed.

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15 September 1917 – Haig’s views on the Air Ministry

Following on from General Smuts report on August, the War Cabinet accepted the formation of a separate Air Ministry in principle on 24 August, and then set up the Air Organisation Committee under General Smuts to work on the practicalities with Sir David Henderson leading the work.

At the same time there were misgivings in the War Office about the whole approach Sir Douglas Haig believed that one of the contentions on which the whole argument for a separate air service was based  – that the war could be won in the air as against on the ground – was a mere assertion unsupported by facts.

‘An Air Ministry with civilian head uncontrolled by any outside naval and military opinion, exposed as it would inevitably be to popular and factional clamour, would be very liable to lose its sense of proportion and be drawn towards the spectacular, such as bombing reprisals and home defence, at the expense of providing the essential means of co-operation with our naval and military forces.’

However, in his formal response to the report issued today, he confined his remarks to what was necessary to ensure the efficiency of the air service under the new structure, as the principle of the formation of a separate Air Service had already been approved by the War Cabinet.

He had, he said, carefully studied the report, and he found that some of the views put forward about future possibilities went beyond anything justified by his experience. He thought that a full examination of the problems associated with long-distance bombing would show that the views expressed by the committee required considerable modification, and he desired to point out the ‘grave danger of an Air Ministry, charged with such ‘powers as the Committee recommends, assuming control ‘with a belief in theories which are not in accordance with ‘practical experience’.

After reviewing the difficulties associated with long-distance bombing from aerodromes in French territory, Sir Douglas Haig had much to say about the supply of aeroplanes and trained personnel.

“After more than three years of war our armies are still very far short of their requirements, and ‘my experience of repeated failure to fulfil promises as ‘regards provision makes me somewhat sceptical as to the large surplus of machines and personnel on which the Committee counts in . . . its report. . . . Nor is it clear ‘that the large provision necessary to replace wastage has ‘been taken into account.”

17 August 1917 – “Defence of the empire”

Following the publication of his interim report on air defence of London on 19 July, General Smuts has been working on the second part of his brief: “air organisation generally and the direction of air operations”.

General Smuts had been reluctant to take on the job, as he did not want to get embroiled in the politics of the various disputes between the Air Committee, War Office, Admiralty and Ministry of Munitions. However, Lloyd George had persuaded him by nominally chairing the report and leaving Smuts to focus entirely on military matters.

Today he presented his second report to the War Cabinet. This slim seven page report is the most important document in the formation of the Royal Air Force. His core recommendation was:

“That an Air Ministry be instituted as soon as possible, consisting of a Minister with a consultative Board on the lines of the Army Council orAdmiralty Board, on which the several departmental activities of the Ministry will be represented; The Ministry to control and administer all matters in connection with aerial warfare of all kinds whatsoever, lncluding lighter-than-air as well as heavier-than-air-craft.”

The report can be read in full here.

The recommendation of course recognised that there might be short term inefficiencies, but as the War was expected to carry on into 1919, that it was worth making the change now. Smuts also had one eye on the future and would have gladdened the hearts of air enthusiasts such as Noel Pemberton-Billing with the lines:

“Air Supremacy may in the long run become as important a factor in the defence of the empire as sea supremacy.”

 

To this end, the report recommended that the preparations be made low key to avoid alerting the enemy.

19 July 1917 – Smuts Committee initial report

“The War Cabinet at their last meeting held on the 11th July 1917, decided (Minute 3) ‘That the Prime Minister and General Smuts in consultation with representatives of the Admiralty, General Staff and Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief Home Forces, with other such experts as they ‘may desire should examine i. The defence arrangements for Home Defence against air raids. ii. The air organization generally and the direction of aerial operations.’

2. We regard the first subject for our examination as the more pressing and we deal with it accordingly in this first report, so far as the defence of the metropolitan area is concerned.

The second subject of our inquiry is the more important and will consequently require more extensive and deliberate examination. We propose to deal with it in a subsequent report.

3. London occupies a peculiar position in the Empire of which it is the nerve centre, and we consider, in the circumstances, that its defence demands exceptional measures. It is probable that the air raids on London will increase to such an extent in the next twelve months that London might through aerial warfare become part of the battle front. We think, therefore, that it is necessary to take special precautions, so far as the defence of London is concerned, and so far as this may be done without undue prejudice to operations in the Field and on the High Seas, as the fighting forces must, as a matter of general principle have the first call upon our output of aircraft and anti-aircraft guns.

4. The arrangements for Home Defence, including that of the London area, against hostile air raids, have been undergoing a continual and rapid transformation, which, together with other causes, has militated against efficiency. In the first instance, attacks were made by Zeppelins at night and our defences were so organized as to deal with this form of attack. Anti-aircraft guns, singly or in pairs, or in large numbers, were placed at convenient points, and aeroplanes of no great power or speed were disposed at suitable centres.

After some modification, the original dispositions were found to be adequate to meet night attacks by Zeppelins. We have, however, now to meet attacks of an entirely different character, which take the form of invasions by squadrons of aeroplanes in formation and our arrangements for defence are accordingly being adapted to meet this development.

One cannot, however, entirely preclude the possibility of a repetition of Zeppelin attacks, and it would consequently be unwise to abandon the earlier defence arrangements. Additions to these arrangements are, however, necessitated by the new ‘formation attack’ by day. The defence against Zeppelins was effectually carried out, not only by individual anti-aircraft guns, but also by single aeroplanes fitted with special armament.

As operations were conducted by night, there was no question of formation either for attack or defence. Now, however, that the attack is made by day by large enemy units in formation, one or two anti-aircraft guns firing from any particular point cannot hope to cause serious damage, and generally have no other effect than that of frightening the enemy pilots, while the defending aircraft, unless they can also operate in formation, are liable to very serious risk and cannot do much more than hover round the outskirts of the enemy formation. An attack in formation could, we think, only be properly met by a barrage fire from guns concentrated in batteries at suitable points in front of the area to be defended, or by flights or squadrons whose object is, by concentrated attack, to break up the hostile formation and destroy individual machines after they have been scattered out of their formation.

5. The relevance of these remarks is well illustrated by what happened in the air raid over London on Saturday, 7th July. The enemy machines attacked in definite formation which they maintained throughout the raid. In our view they should have been met and repelled by a heavy barrage of gun-fire before they reached London. Instead of this they were only subjected to a sporadic gun-fire in the London area which did them no observable damage. As regards aeroplanes on that occasion, we actually disposed of a larger number of first-class machines than the enemy, but our machines were distributed among a number of stations and some of them came in in driblets from various training centres.

Our machines were not in formation when in the air, and even when they attempted to concentrate they did not come under a unified command in the air, nor have they been trained so to fight. The result was that their very spasmodic or guerrilla attacks failed to make an impression on the solid formation of the enemy, and the damage that was done by our superior numbers of first-class R.F.C. machines was comparatively negligible.

We have investigated the circumstances in some detail and are informed that the reasons why greater results were not achieved were that some of our pilots were not accustomed to the new machines they were flying, that certain machines were not used because of missing spare parts, and a certain amount of shells that were fired were useless on account of defective fuses. These defects should, and can be remedied with all possible speed, but it is to the general arrangements and organization that we wish to refer more fully.

6. Four separate agencies contribute to the defence of the London area against air raid: (a) Royal Naval Air Service, which is not under the Home Command, but works under the direction of the senior naval officers in the naval districts, but in co-operation as far as possible, with the Home Defences.

There seems to be a general agreement among those whom we have consulted that for the limited purpose of the defence of London, the present division of command in this respect should not be disturbed.

The principal function of the Royal Naval Air Service Squadrons is to deal with enemy raiders on their return journey, as they recross the Channel. They did so very effectively on the occasion of the last raid, and after consideration of all the circumstances, we are disposed to think that the above squadrons should continue to operate under separate Naval Commands, but in close co-operation with the Home Defence.

(b) The Observation Corps (distinct from the Royal Flying Corps or Royal Naval Air Service), which consists of a number of observers round London, mostly infantry soldiers, often elderly and not specially qualified for the duties they have to perform. This Corps is directly under orders of the Field-Marshal Commanding Home Defences.

(c) Various incomplete units or single machines of the Royal Flying Corps allocated to Home Defence, under the Command of Colonel Higgins.

(d) The anti-aircraft guns of the London area under the command of Colonel Simon.

7. The last three agencies operate separately under orders of the Home Defence head-quarters which is the only connecting link between them. This system appears to us to involve too great a dispersal of Command when dealing with a problem like the air defence of the London area, which is not only of very far-reaching military and political importance, but also constitutes a well marked, distinct task, separable from other problems of Home Defence, which accordingly calls for a corresponding concentration of executive command.

Our first recommendation therefore is that:

Subject to the control of the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief of the Home Forces a senior officer of first-rate ability and practical air experience should be placed in executive Command of the air defence of the London area including the above services (b) (c) (d) of paragraph 6 above, and that this officer should be assisted by a small but competent staff, who should be specially charged with the duty of working out all plans for London Air Defences.

This officer would take his instructions from the Field-Marshal and would in turn issue his orders to the Observation Corps, the Officer Commanding the anti-aircraft guns, and the various Air Units. The unity of command which is essential to any warlike operation, whether of an offensive or defensive character, would be thus achieved. We think that this officer should be appointed without delay so that he may at once set to work to deal with the various pressing problems connected with London air defence, some of which are referred to below.

In view of the possibility of the recurrence of Zeppelin attack, as well as for other reasons, we think it would be inadvisable to remove the anti- aircraft guns from their present stations in the London area. In our view, the best defensive use of anti-aircraft guns against hostile aeroplanes attacking by day, would be for them to put up a barrage in front of and covering London, and our second recommendation accordingly is that:

Immediate attention should be given to the question of the numbers and disposition of anti-aircraft guns to put up such a defensive barrage.

It is true that there is at present said to be an insufficiency of guns for this purpose but, as stated in paragraph 3 above, we regard the defence of London as so important as to call for exceptional measures, and special endeavours should therefore be made to provide an adequate number of guns for this purpose. 8. A more pressing problem, in our opinion, is the provision and organization of a sufficient number of air units, trained to fight in formation, and their proper disposition to dispel any air attack on London. At present the only reliable unit formed for this purpose is the squadron specially detailed a week ago from the Western front. Three other units are in process of formation, but they neither have the necessary number of machines nor have the pilots the required training for fighting in forma- tion. We understand that an additional squadron, complete in point of numbers, will be furnished almost immediately and posted to the North- East of London. Another squadron to be disposed to the South-East should be complete in numbers in three or four weeks. Both of these will, however, require to be properly trained to manoeuvre in formation in suitable units. Our third recommendation therefore is that:

The completion and training of these three additional squadrons, successively, be pushed on as rapidly as possible and that, in the meantime, the return of the first unit to France should not be sanctioned until the air defence of London is reasonably secure.

9. In the course of our investigation, we considered the point whether our present type of fighting machine is the best to cope with the slower but more powerful Gotha raiders. In regard to this we make no recommendations and leave the problem for the further consideration and study of the experts of the Air Board, the Admiralty, the War Office, and the Ministry of Munitions.

10. The question of the provision of sufficient aircraft for defence purposes and for the formation of a reserve is one which, in our view, requires careful and immediate consideration. The enemy may possibly adopt the ruse of sending a small number of machines well in advance of his main attack in order to lure our squadrons into the air; the main enemy force may then appear on the scene and find himself unchecked, owing to the fact that our machines in coping with the advanced patrols had exhausted their petrol, and our pilots, their energy. We are advised that, theoretically, for our machines in the air to descend, refill with petrol, and reascend to the proper height, would take some 45 minutes, but in practice other factors would supervene and the actual time taken would be considerably longer. The result might well be that the main enemy force would meet with practically no opposition, and after doing the maximum amount of damage, might return to its base with immunity and intact. In view of such a situation, which might well arise at any time, we submit that it might be advisable to avoid sending up more units than are necessary onthefirstwarningofacomingraid. Suchacontingencywethinkmust be contemplated and to meet it reserves should be kept in hand. We accordingly recommend that:

The air defence units for the London area should he sufficient not only to cope with feints, but to meet the real attack or a possible second attack follow- ing close on a first attack.

The formation and retention of such a reserve is only in accordance with the general and elementary principles of warfare.

II. We believe that if prompt effect is given to the above recommendations, subject always to the adequate and reasonable provision of aircraft for naval and military operations by land and sea, a fair measure of security for the London area from hostile raids may be obtained until, at any rate, some unforeseen development takes place.”

11 July 1917 – Smuts Committee

Following the decisions yesterday on Home Defence, the War Cabinet debated the issues again today.  The difficulty which the Government had to face, in trying to reassure the public, was that they could not, for obvious reasons, advertise that they had weakened the air fighting strength on the Western front in order to provide defence aircraft for England.

Later the same time it was obvious to the Government that the problem of home defence against air attack could not be isolated, that it must take its place in a survey of the whole air policy and organization.

A few days earlier Sir William Robertson (Chief of the Imperial General Staff) had written to Douglas Haig in anticipation:

“The fact is we have not got enough machines to meet our requirements. I find that I have brought the question before the Cabinet no fewer than six times during the present year. I doubt if any real progress will be made until a different organization is estabhshed. The Army and Navy now say what they want, the Air Board consider their wants, and then Addison [Minister of Munitions] makes the machines. I am inclined to think that we need a separate air service, but that would be a big business. There is a special debate ‘on the subject to-night, and it will probably be followed ‘by a secret session.'”

The Government decided, therefore, to set up a committee to examine:

(i) the defence arrangements for home defence against air raids, and

(ii) the air organization generally and the higher direction of aerial operations.

The committee was of a special kind with the Prime Minister nominally in the chair. In reality another member of the War Cabinet, Lieutenant-General Jan Christiaan Smuts, ran the committee and would write its reports.

10 July 1917 – Home defence

Following the daylight attack on 7 July the War Cabinet have once again been considering home defence. Firstl, they have reversed their decision not to give warnings and now it is planned that warnings of five minutes at the circumference of a circle with a radius of ten miles from Charing Cross will be given.

To do this, the warning would have to be given when the enemy aircraft were crossing a line twenty-two miles from Charing Cross. There was, however, no line of observers at that distance, the existing line of the London defences being closer in, at an average of sixteen miles from the centre. The idea of establishing observation posts farther out was considered, but abandoned. Instead ,the existing stations of the Medway defences were used together with some of the new gun stations which were set up as a result of the reorganisation of the defences. They formed an incomplete ring, at a distance of twenty to twenty-five miles, from the north-west, by the north and east, to the south of London. Now all that needs to be sorted is how the warning will be given.

In addition to this, 46 Squadron RFC has been ordered home for home defence. This decision was the subject of much debate within the War Cabinet with Sir John French arguing the inadequacy of his forces against massed raids and Sir Douglas Haig outlining the risks to the British offensive. In the end a compromise was reached as only one rather than two squadrons were ordered home.

The idea of carrying out retaliatory raids on Mannheim was also abandoned.

 

8 July 1917 – London hit again

Today, just a couple of days after 56 and 66 Squadrons RFC had returned to the front, 22 Gothas made a raid on the capital. One of the aircraft, in an apparent diversion, bombed Margate around 0930 and then flew off. Later German evidence suggests the aircraft was defective and dropped the bombs to lessen the load on the way home.

The rest flew on to London and attacked from the North and Northwest despite AA fire . The total casualties were 54 killed and 190 injured, including 10 killed and 55 injured by AA fire.IMG_1096.PNG

The raid once again demonstrated the futility of an unorganized defence. 78 pilots from the RFC and seventeen from the RNAS took the air from home defence and training squadrons, from acceptance parks, and from coast stations.

The aeroplanes flown were of twenty-one types, many of them of little fighting value, but there were about 30 more modern Camels, SE5s and Strutters. 36 pilots got close but individual attacks reduced the chances of success.

A Sopwith two-seater of 37 Home Defence Squadron was shot down, the pilot. Lieutenant John Edward Rostron Young was killed and his observer Air Mechanic Clifford Charles Taylor was seriously wounded. Captain John Palethorpe was in the action again in his DH4 but was hit in the hip and forced to land. Second Lieutenant Wilfred Graham Salmon from 63 Training Squadron in a Sopwith Pup was also killed

One of the Gothas was found, flying low down near the North Foreland apparently in trouble, by Second Lieutenant Frederick Arthur Darien Grace and Second Lieutenant George Murray from 50 Home Defence Squadron in their Armstrong-Whitworth two-seater and was shot down in the sea. Two of the crew climbed on the wings. Grace fired all his Very lights in the hope that he would attract attention to the plight of the enemy but had to leave due to shortage of petrol. When the area was searched later there was no sign of the Gotha or its occupants. This was the only Gotha shot down, though four more were damaged on landing.

The raid, in broad daylight, caused much consternation amongst he public and the War Cabinet met this afternoon to discuss the matter. They agreed that two squadrons should be withdrawn from France for Home defence and that he RFC should conduct retaliatory raids on Mannheim. Douglas Haig immediately agreed to the temporary transfer of Squadrons but stated that the retaliatory bombing would weaken his air strength too much and that this would but the planned operations in jeopardy.