During the 1930s the RAF would spend a lot of time and effort trying to make its dreams a reality.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 96 - Interwar Airpower Pt. 5 - Schemes and Dreams. This week I would like to remind everyone that one of the best ways to support the podcast is by leaving a review for the show on your podcast listening service of choice. I think it is a five start show, but I guess that is up for you to decide. For air Forces there are three categories of performance during the Second World War. The first are air forces that entered the war in a rough state, and were never given the opportunity to recover, France and Poland are good examples of this. The second are air forces that entered the war in a very good situation, did very well, and then that productivity declined over the course of the war due to their own actions and those of their enemies, the German and Japanese air forces fall into this category. The third category are air forces that got generally pummeled for a bit at the start of the conflict, but would eventually turn things around, notable members in this club would be the Soviet Union and the United States. Another member in category three, and our topic for this episode, is Britain’s Royal Air Force. The first few years of the war would not go at all as planned for the Royal Air Force, and if you judge the results based on those plans it would be an unmitigated disaster. I can hear some listeners saying, but wait! Battle of Britain! The Few! Spitfires! Hurricanes! and you are correct, there were really good moments for the RAF, but throughout the interwar period it was focused on one thing, bombing, and in that role the early years of the war would be very unfortunate. The RAF was pursuing a policy of offensive action, actions that would project its power into the territory of the enemy, primarily by using bombers, and to quote Max Hastings from his 1993 classic Bomber Command “seldom in history of warfare has a force been so sure of the end it sought […] and yet so ignorant of how this might be achieved, as the RAF between the wars.” I would say that Hastings is being a bit too harsh there, but I think the sentiment is right. In 1939 and 1940 the RAF would prove to be fundamentally incapable of doing the thing it thought it needed to do to win a war, bomb the enemy, on the scale it thought it needed to to be decisive. There were two things that saved the situation. First, there was a quick shift of emphasis in the last years of the 1930s to put a lot of time and resources into the ability to interdict enemy bombing raids, in the form of radar and fighter aircraft. Second, Britain’s primary threat, Germany would prove to be equally unable to transition its Luftwaffe into a strategic strike force that could have a decisive impact on the war. These two things allowed the RAF to survive into the late war period, where it would have the aircraft and capabilities to launch exactly the kinds of raids that the prewar RAF would have wanted. Were those raids as effective as desired? NO….but that is story that is probably 300 episodes on the future.
The British belief in the capabilities of strategic bombing were based on the same assumptions that led many other nations to the same conclusions. Mainly that the speed and performance of bombers would not be matched by the speed of fighters, making interception difficult and that the destruction caused by their bomb payloads would be devastating. In the summer of 1936 the RAF was reorganized to separate the various types of aircraft and duties into their own structures. The result was the creation of Bomber, Fighter, Coastal, and Training Command. This delineation of duties and responsibilities had the effect of formalizing the split that occurred in all Air Forces as different groups took on different responsibilities and then competed for the finite number of resources that were available. We will talk about fighter command in a bit, but focusing just on bomber command, the focus was on launching an aerial offensive. The abilities of their aircraft to launch these offensives, and the ability of the enemy to stop them, would be formulated in the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Some of this was based on some key assumptions, like the number of casualties that each ton of bombs dropped on a city would cause, which was 50, or the fact that bombers would not face a structured and concerted resistance. There would be resistance to any advance that threatened this basic premise, or as John Ferris would say “They adopted the future conditional tense about material developments, assuming that marginal increases in the speed of altitude of bombers would cripple air defence, while ignoring the possibility that other developments could bolster it. The errors were multiplied by the erroneous assumption that just a few raids would wreck an enemy’s morale and production.” This would manifest in a tendency to dismiss experiences that contradicted these ideas.
Some of these issues would be brought to the fore in 1937 when the leadership of Bomber command passed to Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, and his report would identify several areas of deficiencies that he believed reduced the ability of Bomber Command to fulfill its purpose in time of war. One of the major problems would be around the most important thing for bombers, beyond being able to carry bombs, beyond being able to hit their targets, but instead just navigating to the target. In the modern world navigation, both for aircraft and for all other purposes, feels like a completely solved problem. You can find your location on the Earth to within a few feet of accuracy at any moment. During the Second World War this was absolutely not the case, and so a critical component of bombing targets was simply finding them in the first place. To put it simply, in the RAF not enough time was spent trying to solve the problem of finding where to drop the bombs. There was no single department in charge of formulating navigational best practices or innovations. For much of the interwar period the pilots were expected to shoulder a good portion of the navigation duties, but even when dedicated navigators were available there was a shortage of men. There were also no real career opportunities for navigators, which meant that men, and many of the best, would try and transfer out as soon as possible. And this resulted in the fact that by 1939 British bombers were navigating mostly by guess. One Bomber Group commander would estimate that best that many of his crews could at best come within 50 miles of a target that was far behind enemy lines. This did not resolve itself at the start of the war, and during the first year of the conflict Bomber Command could only guarantee that one out of three bombers would be able to reach a target area in Germany, with that target area defined as 75 square miles, 75 square miles, and still only one out of three. Such a low rate of target acquisition made it incredibly challenging, or borderline impossible, to have the effect that was hoped.
Optimistic assessments were the rule of the day, and this would cause some important topics to be largely ignored as an area that needed improvement. For example, the assumption that bombers were unlikely to be intercepted meant that little thought or effort had been spent on trying to determine the best flying formations or defensive tactics to defend against fighters. One of the themes I have mentioned multiple times over the course of these episodes is how the events of exercises were manipulated to fit pre-existing ideas. This would also occur during RAF exercises during the 1930s, as they were forced to make judgement calls around whether or not bombers were successfully intercepted, or whether or not they were able to reach their targets. Optimistic views of bombing capabilities would also play a role in the design of the bombers. If you were basing planning on the fact that bombers would be able to outrun fighters, then the easiest way to adapt to new generations of fighters were to make bombers faster. This could be done in a variety of ways, but the easiest was to dispense of any defensive armament, particularly extra guns and gunners, and to instead save that weight to make for a faster top speed. Adding more armament, or actual armor to defend against enemy planes, would increase the weight, which would decrease bomb capacity and make the aircraft slower and more difficult to maneuver. During the most of the 1930s engines did not exist that could handle all scenarios, giving enough speed to stay ahead of fighters, while being able to bring enough bombs to have an effect and enough defenses to survive. The speed, defenses, bomb load would be a constant topic for debate, with speed often prioritized for most of the interwar period when it was possible for bombers to simply outrun pursuing aircraft. But this would be forced to change in the years immediately before the war as new generations of fighters began to enter front line service that exceeded the speed of the bombers they would be facing. The development of new fighters, at least in Britain, was driven by the hopes of being able to defend against a German attack. But by developing fighters the questions began to be asked around how they should be employed to greatest effect. This was a bit of a sticky wicket for Bomber Command, the leaders of which had spent the entire interwar period evangelizing a bombing theory around the inevitability of bombers reaching their targets. And, as R.J. Overy would write “To admit that there was a defence against the bomber was to question the whole basis upon which an independent air force had been built.” These questions became more urgent as the British zeroed in on the solution to the problem, radar. From Douhet forward the inability of fighters to intercept bombers had been based not just on theoretical top speed, but also the fact that it was impossible to predict where bombers would strike. It was impossible to keep enough strength aloft at all times to meet and destroy raids, but it was even more impossible for fighters to take off and gain altitude fast enough to intercept. Radar solved this problems, of both being able to tell roughly where the bombers were, but far more importantly that they were on their way at all. The fact that radar existed meant that far more thought had to be given to overall defense of the bomber formations themselves. Escort fighters were also discussed, but they were not a major part of the RAFs plans, and instead they focused on giving the bombers the ability to defend themselves. These efforts revolved primarily around fitting bombers with more weapons and then trying to design a formation that provided the best use of those weapons. Interlocking fire was the goal, where bombers were able to use their guns to support other bombers. This was not an easy problem, especially as new fighters with newer and more powerful weapons like the British eight machine gun fighters of the Hurricane and Spitfires, and the mounting of cannons in other fighters which would be one of the armament options for the Me-109. While fighting more machine guns to all bombers was explored there was also some investigation into just fitting more weapons onto a few of the bombers, creating aircraft that would fly with the bombing formation but with their bombs removed for more defensive and offensive power.
This brings us to the conversation about Fighter Command, which would be under the command of Hugh Dowding. Fighter Command was focused on one thing, setting up a system to defend British air space. One way of approaching the problem was through the previously mentioned radar. Radar was not referred to by that name at the time, and would instead be referred to as radio direction finding. The technology was refined in the years after 1936, and by the start of the war construction had begun on two different radio direction finding systems, the Chain Home and Chain Home Low systems. These systems were rudimentary when compared with radar systems in use later in the war, or even to contemporary German systems, but it was able to perform the function of early warning and the determination of rough raid size and raid altitude. A system of command and control would also be setup so that the information gained could then be quickly and efficiently relayed to where it was needed. Where it was needed were air bases where British fighters would be kept ready. Speaking of fighters, the 1930s would be a period of massive evolution for fighter design. The largest change during the decade would be the shift from the biplanes that had first name their appearance during the First World War to all metal monoplanes. This shift was a very clear and generally accepted evolution, but there were still many points of discussion about the details of fighter design. In the same way that bomber design was a mixture of speed, bomb capacity, and defensive equipment on fighters the balancing act would be how to maintain the highest levels of speed and maneuverability while also mounting as much firepower as possible. Positioning of the guns would also take on added importance as air frames were being made more and more aerodynamic, and often smaller. They could be placed in the fuselage to fire through the propeller, a system that had been perfected during the First World War through the usage of interrupter gears. But placing more than a few machine guns in that position would create space problems as there was also the engine that had to be worked around. This would be the path chosen by the Germans for the Me-109, with a smaller number of machine guns, and sometimes also a cannon, mounted to fire directly forward from the fuselage. They did this to avoid the other option, which was to put the weapons in the wings. This would be the path chosen by the British for both of their most widespread fighters in the early years of the war, the Hurricane and Spitfire. Both of these aircraft would initially mount 8 machine guns in the wings. The trade off was that to mount weapons in the wings generally necessitated slightly thicker wings which resulted in more drag. There were also discussions about what type of weapon should be mounted where ever it might be. The general answer were machine guns, but there was a lot of work put into mounting weapons like the Hispano-Suiza 20mm cannon into fighters. The cannon would provide more hitting power, and had the option of also using explosive or incendiary ammunition which made it attractive. This would be an area where the RAF would evolve during the war, with both of their front line fighters entering the war mounting only smaller caliber .303 machine guns, but then transitioning in later revisions to larger machine guns and some 20mm cannons. There would be other areas in which the squadrons of Fighter Command would need to evolve in the early years of the war. This was very similar to the changes that would have to be made in any air unit when their prewar training came into contact with an actual enemy. Two examples of these adaptations would be the rejection of the close formation flying that had been the topic of training during the last pre-war years and instead into formations that allowed for greater flexibility. Another was the engagement ranges, with pilots finding that that they had to hold their fire until they were much closer than their training had been based on.
While one aspect of Royal Air Force preparation was around theory and doctrine, there was also the small problem of actually building the aircraft required to put those theories into practice. What was abundantly clear in the mid 1930s was that the Royal Air Force, and really most of the British military as a whole, was incapable of meeting the challenges being posed by other nations. The Abyssinian Crisis would be the catalyst for this wake up call. What would follow would be several years of the RAF trying to determine the best ways to rearm, and the most efficient things that could be done to increase its capabilities. One of the disagreements during this time would be between some leaders of the RAF and the civilian political leaders. The British government would begin pushing for resources to be spent on defensive preparations for the RAF, including spending on anti-aircraft guns, and a focus on the creation and expansion of fighter squadrons. This was best exemplified by the Inskip report that was released in December 1937 in which Inskip pushed for absolute priority be given to fighter development and production. The air ministry did not necessarily agree with this emphasis, but its ability to push back was limited. Every type of expansion for the RAF required a concerted effort and specific plans from the Government, because it would required funding and long term commitments with industry. From 1935 until the start of the war these would be named “Schemes” of which there would be Scheme A through M. The nature of these schemes would change overtime, as some of the earlier versions were more focused on threatening Germany with RAF expansion as a method of deterrence while later schemes were focused on drastically expanding the RAFs overall power. I won’t go through each of these Schemes, but just to highlight a few of the import shifts in Scheme content during these years. Scheme C would include the goal of reaching number parity with Germany in terms of front line air strength, which was partially done by continuing to produce older aircraft that were already trending towards obsolescence. Scheme F would be outlined after the Abyssinian Crisis, which had laid bare the complete unpreparedness of most of the British military, and due to this F would have the explicit goal of bringing the RAF onto a war footing. One of the major challenges in all of these schemes was that the British were trying to match a moving and ill defined target. They wanted to be strong enough to match the air power of Germany, but as we discussed last episode they were not completely confident what that was, and Germany was changing its own targets on a pretty frequent basis. This meant that there were often schemes, like H and J, that were drawn up, outlined, detailed, and then never put into action because of changes in German actions, new information about their situation, or just a change in focus of RAF and British political opinion. Scheme H is a good example of this, with it being drawn up so as to greatly boost British bomber strength to match up with estimates on what Germany would have available in the years after 1937. It was rejected due to this focus on bombers, instead of other options. Scheme J was prompted by the large estimates of German expansion, and so included such politically radical options as forced mobilization of industry and workers. In retrospect this scheme, had it been put in place when proposed in October 1937 would have had a large positive impact on RAF strength at the beginning of the war. However it was felt to be political impossible due to the fact that it would have been resisted by industrial leaders, whose support was considered essential to the overall rearmament efforts. Scheme was then proposed not long before the Anschluss, and it would have involved generally more modest goals than preceeding, and rejected schemes, but it would itself be scrapped when the Anschluss occurred. The last scheme would be M, which would be in force until March 1939, at which point the government abandoned the kind of detailed planning that had been part of the schemes. It was felt that the urgency of the threat was enough to disregard anything that might slow down industrial expansion and output.
While the government was working out how best to utilize industry and how best to build up RAF strength, there were many other efforts to try and respond to the planned course of the war in the air. This included preparations and plans for air raid shelters to protect people from the expected German bombing campaign, which would be formalized in the Air Raid Precautions Act of 1937. Plans were made to use various public buildings and structures as bomb raid shelters. Later in 1938 the Anderson Shelter would be introduced as a way for people to have their own shelters in in their gardens. The Morrison shelter tried to achieve the same goal only it could be placed in the home. During just the last few months before the war several aircraft began enter into service and appear in large enough numbers to be impactful. In July both the Bristol Beaufighter and Avro Manchester, precursor of the Lancaster, would make their maiden flights, with both the Beaufighter and the Lancaster going on to production runs over over 5,000. As tensions continued to rise during the summer months, Bomber Command was mobilized on August 1st, to begin launching exercises to prepare for war. But even at this late date, the exact purpose of the bombers, and how they would achieve their goals was ambiguous at best. Fighter Command would prove to be in a better position, at least when it came to being able to achieve their goal of providing some level of defense against German attacks. When the war started, things would not go well for the British bombing campaigns. The light bombers that were sent to the continent would perform poorly, and the raids launched by medium and heavy bombers were little better. For political reasons the British bombers would spend most of the early weeks of the war dedicated to leaflet dropping campaigns, instead of the bombing of targets in civilian areas which the British government did not want to risk. All of these problems meant that during the first two years of the war, even with much larger bomber squadrons and the ability to drop far more bombs, Bomber Command would be unable to achieve its goals. But this was just the reality for strategic bombing in the early war years, it had been a theory that had been built upon incorrect assumptions about how much damage could be done, and how that damage would translate into winning a war. I like this quote from Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1941-1945 by Tami Davis Biddle “During the interwar years, bold claims for the power of bombers were combined with a lack of focused attention to how, precisely, they would operate in war, and how, exactly, bombing an enemy might lead to its political capitulation. This inattention to what, in hindsight, seems like crucial and essential detail stemmed from several important causes— but most powerfully, perhaps, from the way in which airmen perceived their world and made assumptions about it.” The interwar years were a very challenging period to be an airpower planner, technology was constantly evolving and there were a finite number of examples to pull from, and most of those were from the trench stalemates of the First World War that most militaries were trying desperately to avoid. Trying to predict the power of strategic bombing would prove particularly difficult because its goals were so nebulous. Fighter aircraft just needed to be able to shoot down enemy planes, close support aircraft needed to be able to damage targets on the ground, reconnaissance aircraft needed to be able to find and document its targets. Bombers needed to be able to bomb, but how they should do that, how difficult it would be, and how success should be defined were questions that could only be answered by a raft of assumptions. Some nations would make incorrect assumptions, and they would often pay for those mistakes, while others would make the correct assumptions and they would experience short term successes.