Tag Archives: War Office

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.


27 September 1917 – Beyond the wood

The battle over Polygon Wood continued today. The RFC lost another seven crew.

Meanwhile back in England 186 cadets were taken on at cadet training centres today.  Around 1000 have been taken on in September but this is not enough to keep up with the wastage rates nevermind the expansion agreed in July 1917.

At that time the War Cabinet directed the Air Board to consult with the other service departments to prepare a comprehensive plan for the further development of the Royal Flying Corps. As a result the Government decided on an expansion to 200 service squadrons.

The War Office were not entirely blind to the reality of this increase. They calculated that there were 5,841 pilots in training and that of these approximately 4650 would qualify due to wastage (killed, injured, sick or unsuitable for flying).

They further calculated that they would need 5451 to cover the requirements of existing squadrons and the expansion.

This left adeficit of some 800. The prospect of reducing training time from 8 months was not seriously considered as this had been a failure before.

The only real route was to increase the number of pilots under instruction, and where possible use existing military personnel who could bypass the the two month cadetship.

To meet future requirements the War Office estimated they would need 1800 pupils a month, nearly double the current levels. This necessitated an expansion in cadet schools from four to eight, and Schools of Military Aeronautics from four to six.

31 August 1917 – Observer seniority

A rather boring injustice in the determination of seniority for observers was addressed today by RFC high command.

Up to this point, an observer’s seniority commenced on being noionally available for operations. However, the improved training undergone by observers now means that many are accumulating seniority whilst training back in England not having seen any action at the front.

Today the RFC issued an order stating that from now on seniority would commence once the pilot had reported for overseas duty having passed his courses at home. The importance of seniority was that officers did not receive flight pay without it.

In typical fashion, the order was superseded by the War Office in December 1917, who did not appear to know about the change. It appears though that this was ignored by the RFC.


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.”

2 July 1917 – Expansion

Following the German Air Raid on London on 13 June, such is the public outrage that the Government has been discussing over the last few weeks what should be done. On the one hand the German bombing campaign has resulted in Sir John French demanding more aircraft to be dedicated to Home Defence, whilst Sir Douglas Haig warns of the impact on army operations of removing fighting squadrons from the front.

The War Cabinet met on 13 and 14 June and at the second meeting the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, urged that there should be a large-scale increase in the number of aeroplanes, even at the expense of other weapons. The War Cabinet agreed in principle and ordered the departments concerned to confer together to draw up a scheme for the expansion of the air services.

Various memoranda were prepared, and after the preliminaries had been explored departmentally, a general conference was held at the War Office, under the chairmanship of Lord Derby, on 21 June. Lord Derby began by saying that the War Office proposed to double the Royal Flying Corps, even if it proved necessary in consequence to reduce the supply of tanks and of motor transport. The conference discussed this proposition and the logistics of it and then put it to the War Cabinet

Today, the War Cabinet agreed to the scheme and called:

“for an increase to commence at once, of the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps from 108 to 200 service squadrons, with the necessary aerodromes and establishment, and for a progressive increase in the output of aero engines to 4,500 a month, including certain supplies from overseas”.

and that there should be a “corresponding expansion and increase of the Royal Naval Air Service”.

It was easy to ask for an extra 92 Squadrons, but it was going to be very difficult to resource and man such as large increase given the current difficulties in keeping the existing Squadron’s supplied.

27 March 1917 – Virtual expansion

Changes to wireless operations with artillery were implemented back in August 1916 and have proved successful. They have also shown that it was possible to employ a larger number of wireless aeroplanes on a given length of front.

To take advantage of this, RFC command has contemplated increasing the number of corps squadrons, but in the end, Major-General Hugh Trenchard decided that it would be more economical in personnel, especially of squadron and flight commanders, if the number of aeroplanes in each corps squadron was raised from 18 to 24, Given the shortage in personnel, this is the only practical solution. This was approved by the Army Council today.

In approving this increase the Army Council hoped that BE2 aeroplanes made surplus by the proposed re-equipment of five corps squadrons with RE8 aeroplanes could be used to bring the remaining BE2 squadrons in France up to the increased establishment. Very rapidly it became clear that delays in the RE8 replacement programme made this unlikely. On the 26 April, the War Office informed Sir Douglas Haig that it would be impossible to provide for a permanent increase of corps squadron establishments during 1917.

In the event only squadrons involved in the forthcoming offensive were expanded fully with others coming on stream piecemeal as aircraft became available.