Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Bolts from the Blue
From Cold War Warrior to Chief of the Air Staff
Sir Richard Johns Grub Street, September 2018
This autobiography has a degree of rarity value in that few CAS in recent years have put pen to paper (at least for public consumption) after their retirement – perhaps they have become habituated to political delicacy? Sir Richard has no such compunction, thank goodness. Unlike many Air Force pilots who go into print, Sir Richard can write proper English (as opposed to Service English as taught at Staff College), and is a reasonable wordsmith. The prose gains extra flavour from his dry wit: for example, he describes his prep school as “an establishment not then noted for pastoral care”!! The iconic Lightning is described as having “made a significant contribution to the commercial success of Martin Baker”!
The early chapters tread a familiar path, but he was extremely lucky to avoid being killed by an unbelievably reckless QFI whilst doing his Elementary Flying Training. How times have changed. His wit can be touchingly self-deprecating at times. Indeed throughout this autobiography Johns comes over as a warm human being, who cares deeply about those under his command, and therefore under whom it would have been a pleasure to serve. Having survived a Meteor posting (when many did not), he then had the plum flying tour of the era – Hunters.
Throughout his career Johns shows an interest in, and respect for, history, and naturally draws political conclusions. He was particularly miffed by the long-term consequences of Britain’s precipitate withdrawal from Aden. In several passages in the book he mentions RAF colleagues whom I know a little, and I must tackle them to discuss whether they drew the same conclusions about each episode. The flying tuition of Prince Charles is one such.
Johns was selected to become one of the first Harrier pilots (which seems to have aided the careers of all concerned), and he notes that the initial loss rate was alarming (19 between 1969 and 1974). As he reached command positions the Harrier Force and then RAF Germany gave him a deep understanding of joint operations, which again can have done his subsequent promotion prospects no harm at all. The Harrier Force was of course at the vanguard of the Fly Hard, Play Hard philosophy of RAF Germany (and renowned for the size of their watches and egos). So this passage contains a particularly amusing yarn about a party with the local hunt.
His first staff posting was in the Directorate of Forward Policy, and here the book takes a greyer tone. The English becomes more service-oriented, the TLAs multiply, and most importantly, the dead hand of politicians becomes very evident. What is depressing about the second half of the book (and this is no reflection on the author), is how today we are still enduring the not-so gradual erosion of our military capability at the hands of the Treasury that he describes 40-50 years ago. He gives a first-hand account of how Whitehall removed layers of authority from the Chiefs of Staff. He also gives a penetrating analysis of how the RAF and Army differ in their decision-making, and their development of middle-ranking officers. To hear him describe how, under his watch, the RAF put up a flypast of 168 aircraft over London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain underlines the hollowing out of our forces since then (cf the bare 100 for the Centenary this year). The second half of the book makes a series of telling criticisms about the political management of defence in the last 30-40 years. One that caught the eye was that the very important Options for Change (change as in ‘shrink’), were not stilled for a few months to allow the lessons of Gulf War 1 to be digested .
When Johns reaches the pinnacle (as CAS) he cannot resist in this book giving us his take on the history of the RAF (since birth). Although this is a crisp summary, it reduces the tempo somewhat. He clearly developed a good working relationship with George Robertson and John Reid, the two Labour ministers in charge of Defence at the outset. Their successors were anonymous in their mediocrity.
Ever a people man, Johns was clearly the most exercised by the impact of successive budget cuts on the career prospects and morale of his men. Given the current parlous state of the RAF, this is all very salient just now. His epilogue – drawing conclusions from his career, and commenting on the role of his beloved Service now and in the future – displays sharp analysis against which a mandarin would struggle to argue. It is still very depressing though!
In conclusion this is really two books in one (and not necessarily the better for that) – a well-drawn account of a service career in which he flew the best types, and had largely the most interesting postings; and an absorbing inside view of having to cut back the RAF at the behest of the Treasury, with all the while a series of hazardous overseas tasks being demanded.