Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The life of Viscount Trenchard
Russell Miller W&N April 15, 2016
Hugh Trenchard is well known as the ‘Father of the RAF’. However there was plenty of interest in his life before the RAF (which after all was only born in 1918), and after his initial RAF career. He played a very active part in the Boer war and was lucky to escape with his life after escapades that verged on the foolhardy. Did you know, for example, that a painful lack of mobility was cured by a crash on the Cresta run?!
Sure of his own opinions, like many great leaders, he was usually gruff, did not find social intercourse easy, and had endured a difficult early family life, with his father going bankrupt when he was in his teens. It took a long while for the resulting feeling of insecurity to be erased. Somewhat surprisingly for someone who achieved such great heights, he also lacked a facility with both written and spoken English. He might well have been dyslexic.
Throughout his military career he was predisposed to attack, as the best form of defence, and it is little surprise that Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was one of his protégés – strategic bombing of Germany was Trenchard’s main battle cry from 1939 onwards. Slightly ironic therefore, that perhaps the main reason why Great Britons must remain eternally in his debt are his defensive skills. He fought off perennial attacks from the Army and the Navy (particularly the latter) to sequester the nation’s air assets after WW1.
A 21stC Briton may well be concerned by the amount of power exerted by newspaper owners on the political process. But it is exerted in a fairly covert fashion in comparison with the naked influence wielded by the press barons during WW1: it is very questionable whether the actions of Rothermere, Harmsworth and Northcliffe, etc. were in the nation’s best interest. The Mail even wanted to issue its own medals to the Army, for goodness sake.
Miller captures all this. Some years ago I read the biography of Trenchard (which had that simple title) by Andrew Boyle (who also wrote a distinguished biography of Gp Capt Leonard Cheshire). After finishing it, I recall concluding it was a very well scripted volume, that, with my limited knowledge of the subject, did the man complete justice.
When I heard that W&N were publishing another biography of the man, I wondered what it would add to our knowledge.The short answer is – nothing at all. The blurb for Boom makes great play of Miller having access to the Trenchard family’s extensive archives; yet so too did Boyle. The earlier author (it was published in 1963) did however have the great advantage of being able to interview many of Trenchard’s contemporaries and subordinates.
Maurice Baring was Trenchard’s amanuensis, putting his rambling thoughts into actionable orders, throughout WW1 and afterwards. Baring’s own autobiography, Flying Corps Headquarters, whilst stultifying in places, is invaluable to any biographer of Trenchard, and is used actively by both Boyd and Miller. The latter is a deft writer – the book reads well; but it does not stand up as a work of scholarship. His narrative timeline, perhaps understandably closely follows that of Boyd. But, more worryingly, most of the speech in Boom, both direct and reported, is simply lifted in chunks from Boyd, without being attributed.
Boom must have been a comparatively easy book to write because of its lack of originality; I noted at the time in my review of Miller’s previous book – see here – on Bill Slim, that it borrowed heavily from Slim’s autobiography, Defeat into Victory. There seems to be a pattern in Miller's recent work.
If you have not read anything of Trenchard before, you will be perfectly content. Anyone else will see it does not advance our knowledge of the man.