15: The Fleet Air Arm Debate


Aviation would be seen as a critical component of naval power in the 1930s, but the Royal Navy had one problem: it did not control the pilots or the planes.

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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Member’s Episode 15 - the Royal Navy Part 5 - Aviation. Before we get started today, we have to talk about a mistake on my part. When I sat down to start organizing my research notes for the upcoming serious on the Munich Crisis I made a rather interesting discovery. In the big long document of Munich Crisis research notes, which would probably be 80+ pages if you put it into a Word doc, there were about 1600 words worth of notes on the Royal Navy in 1937, the New Standard of Naval strength, and the British prewar naval building programs. Obviously this has little to do with the Munich Crisis, and I just accidentally misfiled them in that big long document instead of the big log document for these Royal Navy episodes. So that I have done is just bring them into this episode, even though they really should have been in Episode 3. This also means that some of what will be discussed in the first 10 minutes or so of this episode might seem slightly familiar, but with new and interesting information mixed in. Then the final two thirds of this episode will be discussing entirely new topics, mostly around the Royal Navy and aviation.

In early 1937 the Admiralty setup a new committee, the Shipping Defence Advisory Committee which was given the task of coordinating all of the aspects of trade defense which would of course be critical in time of war. Various subcomittees were created to deal with small topics, like how information would be communicated to ship owners, as well as really large topics like how and if a convoy system would be used. The usage of convoys for the protection of trade was a topic that had a far more hectic and divisive history in the Royal Navy than might today be expected. During the First World War the Royal Navy had advocated against convoys for years, under the assumptio that it would just concentrate the merchant ships and make them easy targets. They were also hesitant to stand up a system that would inevitably need naval resources in the form of convoy escorts. After convoys were belatedly introduced in 1917 they would prove to be effective at reducing the risk to shipping from enemy attack, but then after the war the convoy system was once against questioned. The developments in asdic and the increased proficiency in offensive action against submarines seemed to point to a future war in which it was much more dangerous for enemy vessels to attack any shipping, and so they might be easily taken care of. It whould also perhaps just be made clear that there were few naval officers who really wanted to commit to a career in convoy defense. It was seen as an unglamourous and boring role, and just about any naval officer was far more interested in commanding and serving on fleet destroyers rather than escorts. Wiser heads would begin to prevaul after 1935 though, and during a Shipping Defense Advisory Committee meeting Admiral James would unequivocably state that the convoy system was the most effective organization for trade defense, providing the least risk to all kinds of enemy combatants. There would then be plans prepared to introduce convoys in some areas of the shipping lanes, and that there would be escorts available as necessary. This would prove to be the correct stance, but there was the continued belief that some of these measures would not be necessary at the very start of a war. After the experiences of the First World War it seemed very possible that an enemy, probably the Germans, would not immediately begin unrestricted trade warfare due to its inevitable disastrous consequences on relations with neutral powers.

We do not have great information about all of the Royal Navy’s interwar exercises due to the fact that most of the documents from this period have been destroyed. We do know that the 1937 Combined Fleet exercises would last for a week and involve a whole host of different scenarios that were deemed to be likely to occur during a war. This included sumbarine attacks, night time destroyers attacks, torpedo-bomber attacks, and various fleet cruising exercises. There were also many ships involved, a considerable portion of the entire strength of the Royal navy with 10 capital ships, 2 carriers, three cruiser squadrons and 5 destroyer flotillas. A few months later there would be an important meeting that too place in London with the 1937 Imperial Conference, the first in 6 years. This meeting was important to the Royal Navy because many of the representatives at the Conference from the Dominions were directly concerned with the Royal Navy’s plan for a war with Japan. As we discussed in a previous episode, at this time the plan was for the base at Singapore to hold out until the fleet arrived from European water. To say that there was some scepticism about this plan from the leaders of those areas in the Pacific would be an understatement. In particular the representatives from Australia and New Zealader were very concerned aobut both the practicality and the chances of success of such a plan. The Admiralty stuck to its line that it was the plan and that it would be successful, but in June there would be a new report written about the situation in the Pacific which cast some doubts. It would in some ways make for depressing reading, with the fleet expected to take 53 days to arrive, and that the air power of Japan outnumbered both the British and Dominion air services in the area by some margin. But in others it seemed quite upbeat, which was mainly down to a faith in the Royal Navy’s superiority over the Imperial Japanese Navy which was probably not warranted, and just a bit of an optimistic view of the entire situation.

This did not prevent the Navy from using the Far East as an excuse for expansion, and also on the heels of the Imperial Conference the Admiralty would first consider the ‘New Standard of Naval Strength’. This standard was set out in a paper and involved the expansion of the Royal Navy to a size that would allow both a large fleet to be sent to the Far East to face Japan while at the same time providing enough strength that could be left at home to defend against any European naval power. To build up a fleet to this size would require a huge amount of construction. Here is Stephen Roskill from Naval Policy Between Wars: The Period of Reluctant Rearmament, 1930–1939 to explain “The size of the ‘New Standard Navy’ was perhaps somewhat breathtaking, at any rate in Treasury eyes. It consisted of 20 capital ships, fifteen aircraft carriers three of which would be kept at long notice in peace time and so require no aircraft, 100 cruisers, 22 flotillas of destroyers (some 198 boats), 82 submarines and ‘the usual proportion of smaller vessels’. The total cost was estimated at £104 millions per annum over and above normal Navy Votes, and it might total £800 millions during the seven years over which the expansion would be spread.” While the expansion of the Royal Navy in the years that followed would be breathtaking, they would never come close to what was envisioned in the New Standard. This was mostly attributable to the fact that the war started and most capital ship construction was halted. But if we look just at the 1937 year, Five King George V class battleships and 4 Illustrious class fleet carriers would all be laid down in the span of just 12 months. At the same time the number of smaller vessels would be great increased, with small ships being given absolute priority for construction in 1940 as the threat to trade reach a new peak.

Along with this massive building program was perhaps another round of recognition of what was facing the Royal navy in the case of another war. While there had always been considerations around the protection of home water, the Mediterranean, and the Far East, a threat to all of them at the same time would leave even a much larger Royal Navy in a very tight spot. There were simply too many areas of the globe that had too high of a priority for defense. Obviously the home waters could not be neglected, as it would be directly targeted by German trade interdiction. The Mediterranean could not be neglected, as it would be in that area that the Italian Navy would be attempting to support attacks in North Africa against Egypt, the Suez Canal, and even possibly the Empire’s oil source in the Middle East. The Indian Ocean and India could also not be neglected as it was an important part of British power in Asia. Finally in the Pacific an attack on Australia or New Zealand, two of the major pieces of the Dominion, would be a massive blow to prestige. There were attempts to mitigate some of these risks throughout the 1930s, which resulted in moves like the 1935 Anglo-German naval treaty. There were also lengthy discussions with the Americans about naval cooperation. The contents of these talks had to be very carefully balanced, as there was strong support in America to make sure that they were not brought into another European war, and there was the fact that there was not an official treaty between the two nations. Even with these facts there were certainly many items were the two navies had similar interests, particularly in the Pacific. One series of talks in early 1938 would allow the navies to coordinate communication between their fleets, including the sharing of communications codes and the cross training of communication personnel.

In many ways the two navies had similar concerns and similar geographic problems in terms of far flug possessions that needed to be defended, but in many of the deatils of their fleet construction they were quite different. One of the most obvious would be in aircraft carrier design. Entering into the Second World War the Royal Navy would be the only one of the navies to possess carriers with armored flight decks. The decision to pursue this type of design was made quite early in the 1930s, and it was driven by particular technological issues that at the time were logical. The largest issue was how challenging it was to intercept air strikes against a carrier. In the years before radar became more pervasive the only way to know that a ship was going to be attacked from the air was to spot the aircraft with good old Mark 1 eyeballs. It was possible that aircraft in the form of a combat air patrol could be used, but this was in no way guaranteed, and so it was very possible that the first people to spot an incoming raid would be those on the ship itself. This presented an almost unsolvable, at least with the technology up to 1936, geometry problem. Fighting simply could not get off the deck and to an altitude to intercept fast enough to keep an incoming strike away from the carrier, it just was not possible. This meant that the carrier would be attacked, it would be hit, it would take damage, and so the British would design their carriers around this idea. Armoring the flight deck was the answer, with with the Royal Navy providing a 3 inch armored deck that could protect against up to a 500 pound bomb. This seems like a bit of a no brainer, but it introduced other problems. An armored deck was much much heavier than the deck on an unarmored carrier, and that weight had ramifications for how the rest of the ship could be designed. It needed far more support and far stronger hanger decks than were required on other cariers. This was acceptable for the Royal Navy because they had also made the decision to use a closed hanger design. This meant that the hanger deck was totally enclosed and was not an open air design like present on say American carriers. This closed in design had its own positive and negatives. On the positive side, it provided much greater protection for the aircraft while the ship was at sea and it made the design of the rest of the ship far simpler because a closed hanger made the entire ship more rigid. On the negative side, the planes could not be started and warmed up in the hanger and had to be moved to the flight deck before this could occur. And both decisions, armoring and enclosing, put constraints on the number of aircraft that the British carriers would carry. This is maybe the area where the British carriers get the most criticism, because the difference in plane capacity between the Royal Navy carriers and the American carriers was in some instances pretty intense. For example, the USS Enterprise, laid down in 1934 could carry upwards of 90 aircraft whereas the British carriers of the Illustrious class could carry only around half that number depending on the carrier and the year of the war you pull from. Obviously this was a huge trade off, and has been a topic of conversation ever since. The clear benefits and drawbacks, and then the completely different environments in which the British and American carriers would be active during the war make direct comparisons very challenging. The cheeky answer would be that since both the Japanese and Americans began building armored carriers during the war, and then after the war closed hangars would be the standard, the Royal Navy was obviously correct. The truth is probably more nuanced, because just because something was correct in 1945 does not mean that it was correct in 1937.

The aircraft carriers themselves were just one part of the problem when it came to naval aviation, the other two would prove to be even more complicated, the planes and the pilots. In both cases the problems experienced by the Royal Navy could be traced back to a single source, the decision made to put the RAF in control of naval aviations. When it came to pilots the fact that the pilots served in the RAF made it very challenging to fill the necessary positions. From the perspective of the Air Ministry and RAF pilots, they were reluctant to serve aboard ship. Meanwhile naval officers were less inclined to opt to become pilots out of concern for possible promotional challenges. These concerns were legitimate, with the Air Ministry often resistant to moving naval officers above a certain level of promotion. This meant that even after 1932, when a three week training course was arranged for all junior officers in the hopes of tempting some of them into the air, filling seats was still problematic. It was simply very hard to shake the belief that it was better for a young officer to pick a more traditional specialty. On the technical side of aircraft development, relations between the two services was by all accounts pretty solid. This meant that in general the types of aircraft that the Navy wanted to build were designed and built, but there were always prioritization problems, at least if you were looking at it from the side of the Royal Navy. Priority became particularly important after rearmament started in earnest, because there simply were not enough factories and working hours to go around. And when push came to shove the Air Ministry had a tendency to favor bomber and fighting commander over the Navy. During the 1930s the problems with this arrangement became a greater and greater concern for the Royal Navy as the belief that air power would continue to be more important in the naval sphere in the years to come. This put the problems with pilots and production priority in even greater relief as the two services entered full blown rearmament after 1936. First Sea Lord Chatfield, who would be in his position for much of the political squabbles would say ‘Of all the battles with which I was faced … there was only one which gave me real anxiety,—namely control of the Fleet Air Arm.’ As it would happen the shift in control of the Fleet Air Arm would not occur until just shortly before the war.

The late date of this shift in control would not be due to lack of trying. In the early 1930s First Lord of the Admiralty Alexander would write ‘The FAA exists for the Navy. Its machines are designed to meet naval requirements and are paid for by naval vote … It will be required to operate with the Fleet in any part of the world in which the Fleet is needed. For all practical purposes therefore it is an integral part of the Navy.’ By 1936 and 1937 the relationship between the Air Ministry and the Royal Navy over the matter of the Fleet Air Arm was getting downright toxic. By the time of the Inskip reports Chatfield would claim that the Air Ministry was actively working against a government enquiry into the matter. Chatfield would go so far as to float the threat of resigning from his position of First Sea Lord unless an official enquiry was held. Eventually this enquiery would be set up with Inskip, Halifax, and Stanley being its primary members. The report that was generated, almost entirely driven by Inskip, was in general quite favorable to the Navy’s position. It was published on July 21, 1937 and I have pulled some exerpts from the report: “The use of aircraft in connection with naval operations, and in particular the organization of the Fleet Air Arm, have been the subject not only of a prolonged controversy, but of repeated enquiries.” “The two services directly concerned are in sharp disagreement as to the principles on which a sound policy should be based with regard to the use of aircraft by or for the purpose of the Navy.” “[The Admiralty] say that a number of naval functions are now performed in suitable circumstances by an improved method, that is to say, by aircraft instead of by seagoing ships. The functions, however, remain naval, and to carry them out efficiently it is necessary to specialise in the training of the personnel and in the design of the aircraft.” “The air unit in a carrier or in a capital ship is a great deal more than a passenger in a convenient vehicle. It forms part of the organization of the ship, and as such is a factor in the efficiency of the ship.” “I find it impossible to resist the inference that when so much that concerns the air units depends upon the Naval element in the ship and in the Fleet, the Admiralty should be repsonsible for selecting and training the personnel, and generally for the organiation of the Fleet air Arm.” When the Air Ministry responded to Inskip’s report, they did bring up some valid points, as Inskip would discuss in a follow up memorandum to the cabinet on July 27th: “The memorandum points out that the Admiralty have not yet formulated even in outline any concrete scheme for giving effect to their demand and that in these circumstances it is impossible to example the administrative aspects of their proposals. This is a correct state of the position. I envisaged the preparation of a scheme and its examination by the Air Ministry as being the next step of this enquiry.” This cemented the path to the shift of the Fleet air Arm over to the Royal Navy, but in no way solved all of the problems inherent with such a transition. While trying to take over operations from the RAF, a huge peronnel problem developed where the Navy needed not just pilots but all of the other personnel required to make the Fleet Air Arm function. There was a transfer of many officers over to the Navy to prevent immediate problems, but the Navy also had to stand up the training processes for future generations. This would take time, but by the middle of 1938 the first new officers had started training, and the first Rating pilots were also about to begin. By the time that the war was declared the Royal Navy was able to at least man all of the planes that it had both aboard ship and among shore based squadrons, but it took basically every trained pilot available.

While forgotten is probably too strong of a word, certainly lesser discussed in relation to naval aviation during the interwar years were the aircraft that were not on the aircraft carriers, but were instead positioned on other ships of the fleet. In the mid-1920s the official policy of the Royal Navy was that each battleship should have a turret catapult on the X-Turret and then a quarterdeck catapult and smaller ships should also be equipped with some arrangement of catapult launched aircraft. The planes that were launched from these catapults were seaplanes that would then land near the ship before being hauled aboard again via a crane system. There would be many battleships and cruisers that had such catapults fitting during hte 1920s and early 1930s, but they became something of a divisive topic even while they were being fitted. The primary purpose of the catapult launched planes was around spotting and scouting. They would be equipped with radios and would either seek out the direction and location of enemy ships ro spot the rounds that were being fired by the ship’s guns. There were some suggestions for ships that launched far more catapult launched aircraft, like a design in March 1931 which would have carried 18 torpedo bombers, but atleast for the British these designs did not get off the drawing boards. While the idea of spotting and reconnaissance would good in theory, and even played out well in exercises, there were always many concerns about if such an arrangement would be practical in a real combat environment. There were two primary problems: enemy aircraft and incidental damage. Both pilots and other naval officers raised concerns about the vulnerability of the British planes if they became the target of enemy aircraft. The catapult launched planes were sea planes which reduced their overal performance in comparison to other comat aircraft, there were also the problems of numbers. Even in the 1930s when dedicated fighter aircraft began to be added to ship complements, they would still be greatly outnumbered by any determined enemy attack. The other problem was how vulnerable the planes were when on board the ships. The larger ships had enclosed hangars in which to hold the aircraft, but even in those cases there were serious concerns about how easy it would be to damage either the planes or the catapults, rendering both of them useless. It did not help that planes just added another things that could cause fire aboard ship, or even explosions, it also simply required weight and space to store the aircraft and their equipment. All of these concerns became much more pronounced by the mid-1930s as the number of enemy aircraft that might be attacking the ships began to increase, while the number of catapult planes largely remained the same. There would also be several high raning naval officers that supported both catapult launched reconnaissance and fighter aircraft and so the policy would persist. They would continue to overrule those who advocated for a shift away from catapult aircraft, with that space instead taken up by an increase in anti-aircraft armament. The experiences of the war would prove that the second catategory of officer was closer to correct. Ships during the war would find it challenging to get the proper use out of the catapult launched planes, and they proved to be a danger to the ships that they were stationed on. Next episode, the final one in the Royal Navy series, we will look at the final Royal Navy preparations for war, as well as some discussion about the war itself.