Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Wings of Empire
The forgotten wars of the RAF, 1919-1939
Barry Renfrew The History Press, 2015
Or how the British Government protracted the dog days of its Empire on the cheap. After the end of WW1, most combatants were plunged into an era of extreme fiscal austerity. The wind-down of military forces was sudden and extreme. In the UK the nascent RAF had to fight for its continued existence, and it could not have wanted a better guardian of its fortunes than Boom Trenchard.
Although during the war the British Empire had provided a welcome source of troops and some vital war materials, by the Twenties it had become a drain on the home economy, at least in terms of the increasing cost of subduing fractious factions in many countries, particularly in the Middle East. Churchill and one or two other politicians seized on Trenchard’s assertion that he could police errant regions much more cost effectively than the Army. This book chronicles that venture.
Since much of the action was in the Middle East, the book is particularly resonant at the moment, and Renfrew does not hesitate to ring that bell. I quoted one passage in my blog a couple of weeks ago. Another that echoes down the decades:
“It was a miserable war for the troops even by the grim standards of colonial conflicts. Most of the fighting was at the height of the summer when temperatures could reach 130deg F in the military’s canvas tents. ‘When God created hell he thought it was not bad enough,’ an old Arab proverb said, ’so he made Mesopotamia and added flies.’”
Trenchard’s tactics were simple: bomb naughty tribesmen, their villages, and their livestock, until they came into line. The pitfalls of that strategy, morally and otherwise, are now plain to see, but rather than let the reader form his own view, Renfrew makes his distaste for this policy all too plain.
This came to be known as Air Control; whilst the Air Ministry, as Renfrew points out several times, were judicious in releasing limited data on the number of bombs dropped or natives killed, the policy was hardly kept hidden from public view. As he points out, the tactics of incinerating native villages were replicated several times at the annual Hendon air show, which was the RAF’s shop window (and major recruiting stimulant).
He is an historian rather than an aviation historian, and he is not wholly at ease describing the world of pilots and aircraft. One passage that particularly grated concerned the famously successful extraction of civilians from Sherpur (now in Bangladesh) using Vickers Victoria transports in the depths of December.
“Too heavy and too weak to fly over the peaks that reached up to 15,000ft, the Victorias had to thread their way through the mountains. The passengers could only stare mutely at the towering walls of rock outside the cabin windows and the gaping, black gorges below. Afghanistan was experiencing one of its coldest winters in decades, and the British crews in open, wind-buffeted cockpits endured temperatures that fell to -20degC. The cold made flying even more difficult; the engines strained with the effort as the pilots coaxed the packed planes over the ridges and tried to dodge the swirling banks of cloud and snow.”
Well actually the cold made the pilots’ task easier – facing a density altitude problem, the colder the weather the better. The task would have proved impossible in the heat of midsummer. The author’s tendency to over-egg the custard stretches beyond aviation topics: in describing the privations of transport by sea to the these Middle East postings, lower ranks were served, amongst other things “fried onions and cow’s stomach lining”. Which, at least to Northern troops, would be well known (and occasionally liked) as tripe & onions! In the same vein he describes life and behaviour in the officers’ messes as though (describing lab rats) they were odd – he clearly has visited few messes of any of the three services!
Towards the book’s close, as WW2 draws near, and atrocities such as Guernica begin, Renfrew points out the increasingly difficult path trodden by the British Government, in condemning such actions whilst simultaneously maintaining a policy of ‘police bombing’ around the Empire.
Perhaps this book has a place in restoring some sort of equilibrium in assessing the RAF’s inter-war tactics. However the marketing blurb would have you believe that Air Control was somehow hidden from view, and lost from collective memory. This is hardly borne out by the extensive bibliography (five pages’ worth) from which Renfrew draws his sources. (He does additionally make full use of IWM archives). Whilst a reasonable number of black and white photographs add texture, the book would have benefited from a few maps showing the theatres he describes.
The Vickers Victoria: somehow I think I would rather fly out, and be flown out, of Afghanistan in a C130!