Inevitably there will be talk of ‘the few’ and of Spitfires and Hurricanes. Rightly so - the achievement of the Battle of Britain pilots was a heroic and vital contribution to the war against Nazism.
But it’s worth remembering that the origins of the RAF do not lie in its ‘finest hour.’In fact they're downright ugly, and chillingly close to the new world order.
The emergence of a separate air force, as opposed to the Flying Corps of the army or the Air Service of the navy, lay in the theories of a new type of warfare that emerged at the end of the First World War. The Italian theorist Douhet and the visionary HG Wells predicted a form of strategic bombing that would target cities and civilian populations. Wars would end swiftly and decisively, rather than in the attritional slog of the trenches.
The theories were adopted by Trenchard, the founder of the RAF and were summed up with the slogan ‘the bomber will always get through’. Inter-service politics played a part too – if the RAF was to concentrate purely on battlefield ground targets, reconnaissance and dominance of the airspace over the trenches, it might just as well stay a part of the army.
After the First World War the British armed services reverted to their peacetime role of policing the empire. Ironically two of the trouble spots were Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the North West Frontier (Afghanistan). And the newly formed RAF formed a cost effective alternative to traditional troops on the ground. In the 1920’s it was estimated that it would take 105,000 British and Indian troops to conventionally police the revolt in Iraq. With the presence of the RAF it was actually achieved with a force of only 14,000. This was made possible by a campaign of terror bombing – the punitive incendiary bombing of villages that harboured insurgents and the use of chemical weapons – mustard gas was dropped on Kurdish and Shia rebels.
Arthur “Bomber’ Harris the architect of Dresden and Hamburg’s destruction was a squadron leader in Iraq. And Winston Churchill was an early advocate of these new efficient methods:“I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes to spread a lively terror”.
None of this need diminish the memory of aircrew, including some of my own family, who gave their lives in 1939-45. But in these times it does seem appropriate to remember exactly how we got to have an air force.