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War Thunder Historical Board: «Britain's Air Power in 1939». Part 2
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"Britain’s Air Power in 1939", Part 2

by Mark Barber


The story in RAF Bomber Command was a little different, but still far from ideal. At the head of the RAF was First World War bombing veteran Hugh Trenchard, a staunch advocate of strategic bombing. However, faced with only 17% of Britain’s defense budget for the majority of the interwar period, Trenchard was struggling at times to even justify why Britain needed an independent air force. The RAF heavily publicized its overseas contribution to British interests, which at times largely consisted of bombing small towns and villages on the fringes of the British Empire into submission, often without opposition. Faced with this limited budget, unable to cater for every area within the RAF and personally focused on what he believed to be the future of air power, Trenchard concentrated on bombers. Together with chief subordinates such as Arthur Harris and Charles Portal, Trenchard feverously believed that future wars could be won by simply over flying an enemy’s army and navy to bomb the very heart of their country itself. This faith in strategic bombing (rather than the tactical bombing adopted by the German Luftwaffe to directly support their army) was key to British bomber design philosophy.


The Air Ministry put out specifications for fast monoplane bombers capable of carrying large numbers of small bombs – again, Fighter Command’s ‘spray and pray’ mentality had direct parallels with Bomber Command’s tactics of having a high probability of causing some damage with many light bombs rather than precisely attacking with a small number of heavy bombs. The next question was that of defense – RAF interwar doctrine dictated that bomber squadrons would be able to safely defend themselves either by flying in close formation so that their defensive guns would provide interlocking arcs of fire, or by attacking under the cover of darkness. The problem was that the light 0.303 machine guns on RAF bombers were no match for enemy fighters, and that RAF night navigation techniques relied on ‘leap-frogging’ from city to city by simply comparing a map to brightly lit urban areas which could be seen below the aircraft. Bomber Command did not have the training or systems in place to navigate by night in poor weather or over a country plunged into darkness by wartime blackout.


So, with war approaching rapidly during the 1930s, Bomber Command’s funding was spent on fast, lightly armed bombers with small payloads such as the Bristol Blenheim. The problem was that by the time war broke out, advances in fighter aircraft meant that the Blenheim was no longer considered to be a fast aircraft, and was horrifically vulnerable to enemy fighters such as the Me 109. Medium bombers such as the Vickers Wellington were also developed, but these faired little better, especially in the early raids of the war when Bomber Command experimented with daylight raids with no fighter escort. But there was some hope; in 1938, with war clouds visibly on the horizon, the RAF’s budget leapt to 40% of all defense spending in Britain. Whilst in theory this gave Trenchard the resources he needed to develop the heavy bomber line which would eventually lead to the Lancaster, his ambition was cut short by Thomas Inskip, Minister of Co-Ordination for Defense, who insisted on a greater ratio of fighters which he believed so vital to the defense of Britain.


Clinging on to the attitude that Bomber Command existed to win wars via bypassing enemy armed forces altogether, Trenchard maintained his desire to bomb the enemies’ capital cities rather than support Britain’s army and navy. However, faced with such a limited time window with which to develop heavier bombers, Trenchard was forced to settle for larger numbers of older designs such as the Blenheim and the woeful Fairey Battle, both of which had their numbers significantly bolstered in the lead up to war.


With their only interwar combat experience consisting of unopposed daylight bombing raids in far-flung corners of the Empire, equipped with outdated aircraft and given tasks their crews were neither trained nor equipped for, Bomber Command entered the war in an even worse state than Fighter Command.


If the state of affairs looked grim for the RAF, things looked even worse for aviation in the Royal Navy. After the Royal Naval Air Service had been merged into the newly formed RAF in 1918, the Royal Navy lost control of all of its aviation. The Fleet Air Arm of the RAF was formed in 1924 to operate aircraft from the Royal Navy’s carriers and capital ships. At the core of naval aviation’s interwar problems was the fact that young men joining the RAF to fly had very little interest in life aboard a warship; as a consequence the Fleet Air Arm was seen as a highly undesirable job for RAF crews. Naval officers could still train as pilots but they had to accept a second rank in the RAF – a dual commission as according to the rules and regulations, only Air Force officers could fly.

Whereas RAF Fighter Command was disadvantaged at the hands of the bomber-focused Trenchard, the Fleet Air Arm was all but entirely ignored. The Royal Navy had been one of the pioneering military forces in aviation throughout the First World War, and now stagnated completely for nearly the entire interwar period. However, recognizing the need for the British Admiralty to control its own aviation, Thomas Inskip issued a report in 1937 which handed the Fleet Air Arm (officially named ‘Air Branch’ for the duration of the war) back to the Royal Navy. Nonetheless, the situation only improved marginally. The Admiralty still firmly believed that naval warfare would be dominated by the big guns of battleships, and so had only a marginal interest in naval aviation as a tertiary weapon which could be used for spotting the fall of shot of a battleship’s guns, or finding an enemy fleet. The Admiralty also believed that the dense field of defensive fire offered by the AA guns of battleships would be more than enough to defend against enemy air attack, negating the need to modern naval fighters. The Japanese would soon prove this theory to be completely wrong.


With war approaching in the early 1930s, the Fleet Air Arm’s main fighter aircraft was the Hawker Nimrod; similar in many ways to the Fury, this naval fighter was an open cockpit, fixed undercarriage biplane armed with two machine guns. Following Fighter Command’s lead, the Fleet Air Arm began to replace this in the late 1930s with a navalised version of the Gloster Gladiator. The Gladiator was augmented by the Blackburn Skua; the Fleet Air Arm’s first monoplane fighter which was an unsuccessful attempt to combine the hugely differing roles of fighter and dive-bomber in one airframe as a space saving measure in the confines of an aircraft carrier’s hangar. Fighter tactics were, at least, in a healthier state of affairs in the Fleet Air Arm than in the RAF; naval fighter pilots were not hampered by the Dowding Spread or the unwieldy close formation attacks of their Air Force brethren.


The Fleet Air Arm did, however, have an ace up its sleeve. The Fairey Swordfish entered service with the Fleet Air Arm in 1936 as a Torpedo Bomber/Spotter/Reconnaissance aircraft. Whilst appearing to many as an obsolete, open cockpit biplane, the Swordfish was in fact highly maneuverable and very resilient to battle damage. Able to out turn most pursuing fighters and possessing forgiving deck landing characteristics, the Swordfish was the right aircraft at the right time for the Royal Navy, and was one of the best maritime strike aircraft in the world at the beginning of the war. Later updated to carry bombs, rockets and even radar, it would serve the Fleet Air Arm for the entire war as a highly effective submarine killer.


Entering the war in 1939 with only 232 aircraft and 360 pilots, the once world leading Royal Navy was now reduced to nothing more than a mere shadow of the maritime aviation developments made in the United States and Japan. Suffering from a lack of real combat experience throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the RAF and Fleet Air Arm began to modernize for war only just in time, and entered conflict against Germany in a poor state. Fighter Command could rely on its small number of state of the art aircraft, albeit hampered by poor tactics and key shortfalls in some areas of training. The Fleet Air Arm, ignored for nearly two decades, would soldier on with small numbers of elderly aircraft, relying heavily on the skills of their aircrew. But Bomber Command, with the lion’s share of the funding and an unmatched bravery which would be proved in France, was in the worst position of all. Britain would learn quickly at great cost for her neglect of air power since the end of the First World War.


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