Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Patrick Bishop, author of Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys, has produced this volume to catch the early tide of celebrations of the RAF’s centenary in April 2018. With a surplus of reminiscences from the interviews of service personnel he carried out in connection with those earlier books, Bishop has found a use for them in AFB. One might think there is little to add to the sum of WW2 literature. This book’s theme is generally a sociological and demographic review of the RAF’s formation and its WW2 period. And, for the most part, it does provide useful insight.
As we all know the service was moulded by Trenchard; for its initial officer cadre it sought those with ‘the quality of a gentleman’, but not necessarily a gentleman – an important distinction. A material number of scholarships were open to those who had the talent but not the funds. From the outset the RAF sought more technocratic qualities than its sister services.
Bishop deftly underlines the flaws in RAF management through the Thirties, not the least the Air Staff’s focus on maintain numerical parity (in airframes) with Germany, at the expense of quality. He also stresses the Air Staff’s belief that ‘the bombers will always get through’, which led to such lightweight fighter resource until almost too late. The push for a re-orientation from bombers to fighters came from civilian overseers, not senior officers. He also points out the failings in the RAF’s pilot training system in the Thirties: an adherence in formation flying skills, but formations with no tactical use; a lack of gunnery training, and so on. But Bishop does not explain why these harsh lessons were not carried over from WW1.
The Battle of France reflected poorly on most Allied commanders. Bishop sets out how seemingly relaxed the Air Staffs were to losing almost all of their light bomber force in this fruitless campaign, but without explaining why. Perhaps UK military leadership was still clouded by Haig’s notions of commendable slaughter, as at Ypres.
As I said earlier, the book focuses on sociological demographic, and leadership issues, but the author cannot resist being dragged into the narrative of the Battle of Britain. There are extensive quotes from combat reports; these are, as ever, very interesting, but do not tie in with the book’s stated purpose.
Fighter Command’s subsequent use was in ‘Rhubarb’ offensive ground attack sweeps over Northern Europe. Bishop is rightly critical of their strategic worth: too many experienced fighter pilots were lost for little gain.
The book is very thoroughly researched; Bishop has used a plethora of sources, including an archive at Leeds University that sounds an absolute treasure trove. In consequence his narrative is continually producing interesting asides: the Wing Commander court-martialled for refusing to send is squadron on a suicidal mission to a U boat port, for example. The bravery of such leaders matched that of their weary crews. His extensive sources also help to add colour to tales of the often harsh conditions of service for those in overseas theatres. The RAF’s central role in the Burma campaign is well explained, at least in the freight transport role. Bishop omits to mention the extensive benefits to Army morale of having brave RAF pilots do casualty evacuation from front lines (in L4s, inter alia) often under fire.
Bishop points out that Trenchard continued to exert an increasingly unhelpful influence on his service through WW2, always espousing his original doctrine, and seemingly finding it hard to assimilate any of the RAF’s hard-earned lessons.
Overall an interesting book, which fleshes out the men and their emotions, behind some of the well-known episodes in the service’s evolution.
One or two comments betray a lack of detailed knowledge of airmanship: a spin entry is, for example, defined by ‘shoving the stick forward again’. He is wrong in attributing the Lerwick flying boat to Shorts, and I doubt it was a Sunderland successor.