31 Jul 20

On 31 March 1918 the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) comprised approximately 55,000 aircrew, maintenance and other support personnel. It pioneered naval aviation through operating aircraft from warships – capital ships, seaplane tenders and the world’s first aircraft carriers: HM Ships Furious and Argus. RNAS flying boats conducted fleet and coastal reconnaissance and anti-submarine patrols, lighter-than-aircraft and operated a heavy bombing force from French bases. All this changed on 1 April when the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps were absorbed into the Royal Air Force. The consequences of this was a throttling of naval aviation in favour of the RAF philosophical panacea of strategic bombing and total oversight of anything that flew. Naval aviation was relegated to fleet reconnaissance and fall-of-shot reporting in future fleet actions. RAF pilots seconded to the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) were generalists, in accordance with Air Ministry policy, as opposed to the RNAS pilots who had been trained for maritime air warfare. Royal Navy Observers were carried to navigate, communicate and operate weapons; however, most seconded RAF pilots had little interest in naval flying which carried little kudos for promotion; most only served one posting so there was little cross pollination of expertise. This improved around 1924 when it was decided that 70 percent of FAA pilots would be naval officers. As the RAF decided that naval aircraft were not likely to be used as fighters but rather for reconnaissance and limited strike at sea, the RN was not supplied with the latest combat aircraft for its carrier fleet.

The dismal story of British interwar naval aviation is well known to naval and air power students; however, David Hobbs brings us the story from the service career and archives of Lieutenant W P Lucy DSO RN. Hobbs, as a former RN naval aviator and author of a suite of books on British naval airpower, examines the FAA interwar debacle from a naval aviator’s viewpoint. The book draws on the political, doctrinal, operational and administrative aspects of FAA dual control of the period. Hobbs deals in depth with the battle between the Admiralty, which retained operational control over the FAA and the RAF’s oversight of policy, aircraft design and procurement and training up to the Inskip Award, which returned total control of the naval air arm to the RN in 1937. Hobbs then deals with the race to develop a carrier strike capability which was tested in the 1940 Norway campaign. Throughout the book we are introduced to Lieutenant Lucy through his career as a conventional naval officer and his transition to naval flying and the desperate aerial fights over Norway in April 1940 in which carrier strike was employed or the first time in history. Each mission is described in detail in which Lucy’s command and flying skills are foremost. He was the first naval aviator to sink a warship, the German cruiser Konigsberg, and became an ‘ace’ after his fifth aerial victory (this was never officially acknowledged as the authorities didn’t want to overtly publicise individual heroism). His DSO was to be followed by a bar; however, Lucy was killed in action before it could be promulgated.

There are many absorbing topics in the book which should satisfy the most demanding of readers seeking to understand the interwar FAA and the bureaucratic dead hand of RAF officialdom. Examples abound: naval pilots of Lieutenant RN rank also held RAF commissions, likely as Flying Officer, one rank lower. Consequently, they had to have an officers’ fitness report both from the RAF and RN. The RAF decided that there was no need for the FAA to have adequate reserves of personnel to replace combat losses. The RN wanted to make up shortfalls through training rating pilots; the RAF would not allow this although they used sergeants as aircrew.  Hobbs portrays the personnel arrangement in chapters such as joining the RN as an officer and training as a pilot, the work of Observers and the RAF contingents in HM Ships. Doctrines, operations and exercises, ships, aircraft weapons and tactics are all covered, as is the liberating Inskip Award.

Admiral Sir Ernle Chatfield became First Sea Lord in 1933 and believed that the RN could not reach its full war fighting potential if the RAF retained control of the FAA. The RAF’s expansion, and concentration on Bomber and Fighter Commands, further boded ill for the FAA and Chatfield’s campaign, begun in 1935, to convince the government to return the FAA to naval control, was achieved when the Cabinet appointed Sir Thomas Inskip CBE PC KC, the Minister for the Coordination of Defence, to review and report. Inskip’s clear and wonderfully argued assessment of the FAA’s predicament is a joy to read as Hobbs quotes extensively from the report. However, Inskip recommended that shore-based maritime patrol aircraft remain with RAF Coastal Command, although the Admiralty retained operational control. Once unshackled from the RAF, that service seemed glad to get rid of the pesky sailors and did much to facilitate the transfer. The term ‘Fleet Air Arm’ became the ‘Air Branch of the Royal Navy’; however, this ponderous sobriquet was ditched in 1953 (at Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation) and the FAA was resurrected.  The Air Branch raced to organise for the coming war and Hobbs details the state of the capability in 1939 and we follow Lucy’s career throughout this period. Naval aircrew rapidly developed combat tactics to wring the best out of their inadequate aircraft from the earliest encounters over Norway.

The chapter Progress in the United States Navy draws a parallel with the hamstrung FAA. Spurning early attempts to form a separate air service, the USN rapidly evolved its aviation arm. Senior officers undertook flying training so a strong advocacy for aircraft capable ships and purpose designed state-of-the art aircraft ensured that by the early 1940s the USN was well placed to engage the Imperial Japanese Navy, which of course also developed a highly effective air arm. The FAA’s Norwegian air campaign was fought with Fairey Swordfish and Blackburn Skua aircraft. The Swordfish was an aberration, dismissed by many as obsolete but its service record and longevity was outstanding, not the least of which was the raid on Taranto, studied by the Japanese Navy and inspired the Pearl Harbor attack. The Swordfish’s low take-off and landing speeds and its outstanding flying qualities made it an aircrew favourite. The Skua was slow and underpowered and vastly inferior to contemporary RAF fighters; however, it was an efficient dive bomber. Its turret-equipped fighter stablemate, the Blackburn Roc, was virtually useless and was ignominiously withdrawn from front-line service.

Hobbs assesses that the FAA’s experience of dual-control has lessons for today in joint command and control with the need for due regard to specialities honed through practical experience in varying environments. While modern military forces are becoming more and more integrated and mindful of each service’s capabilities, the interwar dual control of the FAA remains as a salutary example that history should not repeat itself through domination by singular minded military authorities. Heavily illustrated, largely from the author’s own collection, with high quality research from official records, Lucy’s personal papers and authoritative secondary sources, this is a splendid book which contrasts the arrogance of blinkered bureaucracy with the highest levels of adaptability, innovation and personal heroism.