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The Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 by Ian Smith Watson

I’ve got to admit, I didn’t expect much from this book. No matter how you look on it, it just doesn’t sound that interesting. Which makes it all the more pleasing that in actual fact, its a very enlightening read.

I’m quite a latecomer to airshows – I’ve only ever been to one back in the early 90’s at the old HMS Daedelus in Gosport, and the last couple of years at Shoreham airshow. Its quite intereresting to read, therefore, that according to the author airshows were the second biggest participation events in Britain in the twentieth century, after football matches. Where this assertion comes from is not made clear, but all the same, as a spectacle the airshow holds a place in British social history.

The main focus of Ian Smith Watson is the RAF’s own official air displays from 1920, until the remaining annual display at RAF Leuchars. As a relatively young service the RAF has always had to gain the respect of the public, politicians and the other services, and as such it has learnt to market itself very effectively. As the operators of some seriously impressive hardware, the air show has become a valuable tool in the RAF’s PR armoury.

The first RAF airshows began soon after the service’s founding, in the early 1920’s at RAF Hendon. At that time it was still only some 20 years since the Wright brothers had flown at Kitty Hawk, and aircraft were still a novelty and a big draw to the public. Locally, the airshows at Portsmouth’s new airport in the early 1920’s drew thousands of spectators – at the time it was almost the equivalent of NASA displaying the Space Shuttle.

Although interrupted by the war years – when naturally enough the RAF had enough on its plate without putting on displays – after 1945 a return to peacetime conditions ensued. Recognising once more a need to promote the service and engage with the public the Battle of Britain at home days were devised. The anniversary of the Battle of Britain was chosen, as it was seen as the RAF’s finest hour. Its interesting that even so soon after the end of the war the RAF was distancing itself from the fallout of the Bomber offensive. The ‘at home’ concept saw as many RAF bases as possible throwing open their doors to the public, with static and flying displays.

The post-war contraction of the RAF, coupled with the changing performance of aircraft, saw the number of shows gradually decline until they were taking place more on a regional basis, with bases such as Biggin Hill, Abingdon, St Athan, Finningley and Leuchars hosting major events. Gradually official aerobatic display teams were formed, leading to the world-famous red arrows.

One interesting factor that Smith Watson looks at is the involvement of foreign air forces. In the early 1950’s the RAF decided against inviting foreign airforces – apart from the US and Canada – for practical and protocol reasons. Within a few years, however, and with the decline of the RAF’s inventory a u-turn saw much of the ‘at home’ air shows being padded-out with foreign participants. Given the ever-decreasing size of the RAF and operational commitments, sadly the only official RAF airshow is now at RAF Leuchars, and RAF commitment to other civilian-organised shows is on the wane.

Perhaps in places the author is over-nostalgic, for example his dislike for the RAF’s attempt at trialling a new modern kind of airshow in recent years. People change, and so does society, and it takes different ways to engage. The other drawback with this book is that it focuses only on official RAF airshows, whereas in the broader remit there are many other air-minded events that might be interesting to research. But all the same, this book points the reader in that direction.

I think any writer can take a fashionable or well-known subject and churn out a book, but it takes a very gifted writer to take such a specialist subject and make it readable to a wider audience. It might also make interesting reading for an RAF PR officer, thinking about how to promote the service in public minds, especially with spending cuts looming.

The Royal Air Force at Home: The History of RAF Air Displays from 1920 is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under airshow, Book of the Week, Royal Air Force

Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead – the Royal Air Force (part 1)

410 Airmen and women from Portsmouth died between 1939 and 1947. Analysing when and how they died tells us much not only about the war that the RAF fought, but also about the population of Portsmouth in the mid-twentieth century.

As with the Navy and Army we can analyse where in Portsmouth they came from, when they died, their ages, what ranks they held, and any decorations they were awarded. But RAF casualties also present us with some unique information – their roles, what aircraft they were flying, and even on what raids they were shot down.

Areas

96 – Southsea (23.41%)
47 – North End (11.46%)
40 – Cosham (9.76%)
25 – Copnor (6.1%)
15 – Fratton (3.66%)
11 – Stamshaw (2.68%)
10 – Drayton (2.44%)
9 – Milton (2.19%)
7 – Buckland (1.7%)
7 – Hilsea (1.7%)
6 – Paulsgrove (1.46%)
5 – East Cosham (1.22%)
5 – Farlington (1.22%)
4 – Eastney (0.98%)
3 – Mile End (0.73%)
2 – Portsea (0.49%)
1 – Wymering (0.24%)

49 men are listed as from ‘Portsmouth’ – 11.95%. The remainder of men are listed as coming from somewhere other than Portsmouth.

Firstly, most RAF men seem to have come from Southsea and outlying areas such as North End, Cosham and Copnor. Cosham in particular is an interesting case – with a relatively low population at the time, it contributed a much larger proportion of airmen than it did sailors and soldiers. Although it had a small population, Cosham woud have been home to more educated and middle class people. Given its more stringent entry requirements and need for specialist skills, its not surprising perhaps that many Cosham men joined the RAF – a case of round pegs in round holes. By comparison, much fewer airmen came from the inner-city areas such as Buckland and Fratton – and none at all from Landport.

When they died

When they died tell us an awful lot about the part that the RAF played in the war:

1 – 1939
36 – 1940
56 – 1941
48 – 1942
95 – 1943
110 – 1944
45 – 1945
14 – 1946
5 – 1947

The large numbers of men killed in 1943 and 1944 suggest that heavy casualties were suffered during Bomber Command’s Stategic Offensive over Germany. I will look more closely at these statistics in a future instalment.

Ranks

The RAF presents an interesting case where ranks are concerned, due to its unique structure.

100 of the Portsmouth Airmen who were killed during the war were commissioned officers – 24.39% of all airmen, a much higher proportion than either the Navy or Army:

2 – Group Captain
3 – Wing Commander
3 – Squadron Leader
20 – Flight Lieutenant
38 – Flying Officer
33 – Pilot Officer
1 – Officer Cadet

310 Portsmouth Airmen killed during the war were either NCO’s or other ranks:

12 – Warrant Officer
65 – Flight Sergeant
177 – Sergeant
16 – Corporal
22 – Leading Aircraftman
9 – Aircraftman 1st Class
7 – Aircraftman 2nd Class

Of these other ranks 270 – 87% – were NCO’s. This was due to the RAF’s unique rank structure. Virtually all air crew were promoted to NCO or officer rank, almost as a matter of course. Subsequently, few other ranks came into harms way during the war, and thus far fewer were killed. Whereas aircrew flying on Bombing missions night after night or were much more vulnerable. Obviously many thousands of ground crew – Aircraftsmen and Corporals, for example – would have been serving with the RAF during the war, but for the most part they would have been serving in relative safety compared to aircrew. The exceptions of course would have been theatres where ground crew were open to air attack or capture, such as at Singapore.

The RAF also had unique customs when it came to ranks. Whereas in the Navy and Army officers led and men followed, in the RAF ranks did not neccessarily correspond with roles. It was quite possible to have a crew made up completely of officers, and another crew made up completely of NCO’s. Therefore, in one aircraft a Flight Lieutenant might be an Air Gunner, whereas in the next plane the Pilot might be a Flight Sergeant.

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Poll for most iconic RAF figure of WW2

The RAF Benevolent Fund is hosting a poll to find the most iconic RAF Figure of World War Two. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding is leading the poll at present, with 28% of the votes.

The full list is as follows:

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (28%)
Group Captain Douglas Bader (22%)
Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur Harris (18%)
Wing Commander Guy Gibson (17%)
Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park (8%)
Winston Churchill (4%)
Group Captain Cunningham (3%)
Marshal of the RAF Sir Arthur Tedder (1%)

Regular readers of my blog will be able to guess who I voted for. For sheer impact on the war, leadership and contribution to victory Bomber Harris has no equal. He just edges it over Hugh Dowding, who also made a valuable contribution to the war, in that he didn’t lose the Battle of Britain. Sadly, Bombers have never quite had the same appeal as Fighters when it comes to history, and the Bomber Offensive has become controversial to some people.

A vote for the best RAF post-war Fighter Jet saw the Tornado come out on top, ahead of the Phantom by a mere 37 votes:

Tornado (28%)
Phantom (28%)
Hunter (25%)
Lightning (9%)
Harrier (8%)
Meteor (1%)
Vampire (1%)

In terms of performance it is probably fair that it is a close call between the Tornado and the Phantom. But what about the Harrier? It might not evoke quite the same ‘white cliffs of dover’ nostalgia as the out-and-out fighters, but its unique characteristics, versatility and ability to influence battles should surely earn it more than an honourable mention.

Another recent vote found that the Phantom was the most important US-built aircraft in RAF History:

Phantom (37%)
Hercules (29%)
Liberator (14%)
Dakota (9%)
Chinook (5%)
Catalina (3%)
Reaper (1%)

How the Dakota and the Chinook scored so low escapes me. Perhaps it shows the RAF’s fixation with fighters, but without the workhorses such as the Dakota and the Chinook Phantoms and Tornados would be irrelevant. For sheer contribution to conflicts from D-Day, Market Garden, Burma for the Dakota, and for Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan, surely their impact has been much more important than a Fighter which hardly saw action with the RAF?

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Flying Officer Alan Bateman

Flying Officer Alan Bateman

Flying Officer Alan Bateman

I was contacted yesterday by Justine Hadden, who has produced a fascinating blog about her ancestor, Flying Officer Alan Bateman.

Bateman was a Bomber Pilot who was shot down in a Stirling Bomber over Southern Denmark in 1942. He was held in Stalag Luft III at Sagan, and was about to descend into the tunnel on the legendary Great Escape, when the plan was discovered by the Germans. He then took part in the infamous Long Marches during the last winter of the war, before being liberated in 1945.

I strongly reccomend having a read of Justine’s blog, which tells Alan’s story. It can be found by clicking here

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Filed under Family History, Royal Air Force, World War One

Bomber Harris: Butcher or Victor?

Arthur Bomber Harris

Arthur 'Bomber' Harris

Reading a recent Biography of Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris, the famous Bomber Harris of Second World War Bomber Command fame, it dawned on me just how controversial a figure he has become in recent years. Like Monty, he has suffered from History. Unfairly, in my view.

Harris took charge of Bomber Command in 1942, and oversaw its development until the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, a truly monumental task during a critical phase of the war. Harris had always been a firm believer in the power of the Bomber, and the ability of heavy Bombers to win the war on their own.

After the end of the war the contribution of Harris and his men has been consistently overlooked by Historians. He was the only major commander in chief serving in the succesful end phase of the war who did not receive a peerage in 1945. More recently, it has been argued by a number of Historians that the Bombing of Germany amounts to a war crime, that it had little or no effect on the outcome of the war, and that thanks to his close links to Churchill Harris was allowed to wage a private war of his own in the skies over Germany.

To argue that Harris was a war criminal is lacking an awareness of what pressures and conditions prevailed at the time. Whilst it was unpleasant, Britain was engaged in a total war, in which she herself had been heavily bombed, and was fighting a totalitarian regime. For a large part of the war, the only way that Britain could hit back at Nazi Germany was by Bombing. Whilst it was no doubt an unpleasant task, it was by no means as unpleasant as many crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. The alternative was doing nothing, which would have been militarily and politically unacceptable in the situation Britain was faced with. Some kind of effort had to be made to assist the Russians, and the British public had to feel that Britain was hitting back in some way. We should be careful not to judge acts of the past by modern conditions, or to discount them ebcause they dont fit in with our political motives today.

Reports during the war argued that area bombing was ineffective. One of these was written by a scientist whose prewar distinction was studying the sexuality of primates. Whilst the bombing may not have been of pinpoint accuracy, certainly it had SOME effect on the German war effort. Albert Speer, the German Minister for Armaments, certainly thought so. The disruption and effect on morale was important. Raids such as Operation Chastise, the famous Dambusters operation, had an immeasurable effect on British and German morale conversely, and forced the Germans onto the defensive over their own skies.

Harris by no means waged a private war. He was assured of his own knowledge, experience and confidence. His bosses, Churchill and Portal, largely let him get on with the task at hand, which speaks volumes of their confidence in him. But the bombing of Germany was part of a wider strategy, as agreed at political level domestically and with the Allies. At key phases Harris’s bombers were tasked to operate in support of the D-Day Invasion, something that he reluctantly but ultimately agreed to. In several cases his heavy bombers launched raids directly in support of the Army. They were unsuccesful, as he had predicted, but at least he tried. Hardly the actions of someone waging a private war.

Some accounts try to portray Harris as a coarse individual. In fact he was well read in military history and a very experienced aviator. Harris was initially critical of Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb, but when it worked he exclaimed to Wallis ‘now you could sell me a pink Elephant!’

Lastly, I think any leader or commander should be most suitably assesed by the regard in which they were held by their men. And most veterans of Bomber Command seem to concur that Harris was an ideal leader. It is hard to imagine another Airman trainsforming and commanding Bomber Command so well. In the states figures such as Ira Eaker, Curtis LeMay and Jimmy Doolittle are revered. Why not Harris?

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Navy at ‘minimum capability’

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope

The Royal Navy is at its ‘minimum capability’, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope has told the Portsmouth Evening News.

With a full defence spending review likely whoever wins the next General Election, the armed forces have already begun talking about possible cuts. Admiral Stanhope warned that he faced a battle in the Defence Review, and that the Navy could take no more cuts if it was to carry on with its existing roles. Not only does it have its existing roles to think about, but also any unforseen developments on the global stage. Who could have predicted 9/11 and the impact it would have on global security?

With massive cuts in public spending necessary in light of the global recession and spiralling national debt, it is inevitable that some Defence projects will come under threat. This is a difficult balance to find. Big construction projects, such as shipbuilding, secure many jobs around the country, and are vital to economic recovery in several industries. Also, we are committed to projects such as the Eurofighter Typhoon. Even though we probably dont need 200+ Eurofighters, we were committed to ordering that many to keep the international consortium building them afloat.

Public support for the Army is very strong at present, given its visible role in Afghanistan, and the persistent outcry over the lack of and inferiority of equipment issued to troops serving in theatre. The price of a few Eurofighters would pay for a hell of a lot of top quality body armour.

The Royal Navy faces a particularly though time, as it has committed itself to two huge 60,000 ton aircraft carriers, at the expense of frigates and destroyers. Indeed, the new Type 45 Destroyer was cut from a planned 12 ships to an eventual order for 6, which of course is nowhere near enough. There are as yet no firm plans to replace the Type 22 and Type 23 Frigates. Ships can only be in one place at any time, and for every ship on duty, you have to plan for at least 1, possibly 2 being in port or refit.

One cannot help if we might have been better served with several smaller, cheaper aircraft carriers and more escorts to protect them. The first Aircraft Carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, will be safe as work has already started on her and it would cost more to cancel her. But the second, HMS Prince of Wales, will almost certainly come under threat. We could potentially be left with one huge and expensive to run aircraft carrier, which is far too inflexible.

As much as politicians may give credit to our armed forces, their commitment – or lack of it – really shows when it comes to finding the money to back them up for real. Defence Reviews are a notoriously tricky business and have caused the demise of more than one politician, as John Nott will testify.

Expect to see more Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals making their cases in the news in the coming months.

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