RAF on the Offensive – The Rebirth of Tactical Airpower 1940-1941

RAF on the Offensive – The Rebirth of Tactical Airpower 1940-1941

Author
Greg Baughen
ARRSE Rating
1.5 Mushroom Heads
“RAF on the Offensive” attempts to focus on a specific window of experience in World War 2, as the title suggests, the RAF’s development of tactical air support between the fall of France and the entry of the USA into the War. The volume reviewed is produced in standard hardback format and is 303 pages long with a good selection of relevant black and white photographs, along with regular interspersion of clear, simple maps. The author draws on a wide variety of sources, including a forensic selection of Air Ministry minutes from the National Archives, all of which are well footnoted. Whilst steering away from the nuts and bolts of air combat, the author writes in an accessible (if somewhat opinionated) style, and the book is an easy read, especially considering the dryness of the subject matter..
The book of necessity spends a great deal of time looking at the Mediterranean / African theatre, as that was the main area of active operations requiring air support (although some time is spent looking at developments in mainland UK). The author mainly alternates between examining the highest level of decision making, Churchill, Portal et al, and the implementation of those decisions at battlefield level by Wavell, Tedder and others, whilst also including information covering events on the world stage.

The central tenet of this book is that in the early years of the war, the RAF failed to provide, and in some cases obstructed the development of effective close air support. To support this, Baughen provides a large tranche of evidence from the archives, along with selected quotes from other sources. His argument is well presented and almost certainly has some truth to it; the RAF hierachy was utterly wedded to the primacy of strategic bombing as a war winner, and considered diversion of resources to anything other than that as an attack on them. There are areas where the author accurately skewers the behaviour of some RAF players, particularly on the delays to provision of American lend-lease aircraft to front line units fighting in Africa with outdated and outclassed equipment, and the Air Staff’s strangulation of Army requests for development of effective ground attack aircraft (a British Stuka or similar).

However, to me this book smacks of a hatchet job. The author has selected a time period which allows him to show the RAF (and Great Britain as a whole) in the worst possible light. There is no allowance for any factors which explain the actions of the RAF, or the rest of the UK, which slow the development of effective air support (for instance the decision to withhold Spitfires from Africa until late 41, because of very real fears of a renewed attack on UK), whilst every other player is given the benefit of the doubt. Any opportunity to second guess and belittle the British course of action is leapt upon, whilst other nations, particularly the US and Greece, are afforded much kinder interpretation of their actions. British successes are glossed over, whilst defeats are painted in the darkest light with little explanation of what else might have been done at the time. The nascent formation of the Desert Air Force is scarcely glanced at, a strange omission for a book about RAF tactical air support.

Churchill comes in for particular criticism; there is a tendency to view his intent in the worst possible light, which of course thanks to the many things he said and the florid, bombastic manner of his speech is an easy (and in my opinion, cheap) trick to pull off. As an example of the sweeping generalisations which are made, the following: “Churchill had never seen the development of tactical support as an issue that required any special attention”, which with a little investigation, can be shown for the paper-thin, false snipes that they are. As a Great War veteran, and early supporter and exponent of the use of air support to ground operations, nothing could be further from the truth, indeed elsewhere in the book Churchill makes specific enquiries; however it might just be possible that in the depths of 1940-41, Churchill, as leader of the embattled British Empire and Commonwealth forces, had other things on his mind than one particular application of air power.

This book is riddled with this sort of this partisan wilful misinterpretation. Baughen has set out on a particular hobby horse, and is damned if he won’t ride it over the finish line. This is a shame; if he had tamped down his distaste for the Air Staff and Churchill and expanded the scope out to 1943 to cover the development and blossoming of the Desert Air Force into a battle winner, this could have been a worthy and constructive book. Much of what Baughen writes is well argued, but the sad fact is that he has allowed himself to rewrite history to win his own argument.

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Themanwho
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