The Royal Navy's Air Service in the Great War

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  • Author:
    David Hobbs
    Commander Hobbs, after service as a Fleet Air Arm pilot with several hundred deck landings to his log book, for many years ran the FAA Museum at Yeovilton, and has published several works on naval aviation. He is thus exactly the right person to compile this history of the RNAS' gestation and WW1 service, and he does not disappoint.

    Less than a year into the War the three year old RNAS had expanded beyond landplanes, seaplanes, flying boats, airships and balloons, into armoured cars (originally to support flight operations in France and Belgium), its own organic ack-ack, armoured trains, and tanks. It had deployed to the Dardanelles, the Adriatic and East Africa (and later into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea in support of the Army), and in its armoured car role to Namibia, Russia and Romania. The RFC was markedly inferior to the Admiralty in the matter of procurement and recruitment. The RNAS was repeatedly, to the detriment of necessary maritime operations, bled for aircraft, personnel, aircraft engines and ultimately whole squadrons and was supporting the Western Front with strategic bombing. The response, forensically analysed by Hobbs, was resentment, obstruction and eventually the subordinated absorption of the RNAS into the infant RAF on All Fools' Day 1918. The RNAS transferred 55,066 officers and men (up from 830 at the outbreak of the War), 2,949 aircraft (91),103 airships and 126 coastal stations (up from nine) – massive feat of organisation in only 3 1/2 years, the while swallowing massive leaps in technical sophistication.

    The RNAS' surrender was engineered via the Smuts pipe-dream report whose chief features were total ignorance of UK maritime needs – the Admiralty's failure to engage and paucity of advocacy much to blame – together with misrepresentation and argument by false analogy. The failure to challenge this by Churchill's over-promoted protegé Beatty reflects, for me, that officer's notoriously shallow and slapdash approach to detail. Politics and personal ambitions won over the essential maritime interests of the country. Recovery took nearly thirty years and some of the effects are still being felt today.

    Besides this enormous expansion the RNAS had allowed junior officers their head in proposing new methods and materiel. At its demise the RNAS' personnel's initiative, creativity and drive was fully bearing fruit. It was experimenting with air-dropped torpedoes and planning a 'Taranto' on the High Seas Fleet and was pioneering the world's first flush-deck aircraft carrier; its flight operations from other ships prefigured the CAM ships of WW2 (with an inevitable ditching) and the need for a Combat Air Patrol had been realised. Anti-submarine warfare using airships and aircraft was well established and successful. Anti-Zeppelin (and Gotha) techniques were mature. The USN was learning from us - so also, later and ironically, our other allies the Japanese. All of this and much more is described in deep detail, interspersed with accounts of individual operations and actions which give a fine flavour of the dedication and courage of RNAS aircrew.

    The book is profusely illustrated throughout with photographs and diagrams appropriate to the adjacent text. Many are from the author's extraordinarily extensive own, and other private collections so will not have been previously seen. Citations are carefully noted and an extensive bibliography is provided. My only gripe was having to keep a marker in the notes to pick up on asides as I read along.

    I look forward enthusiastically to the author's sequel relating to naval aviation between the Wars.

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  1. seaweed
    I am bringing you Hobbs' view (which happens to be mine but that doesn't matter), which he thoroughly backs up by research. The facts are there in the book. It is indeed proper history. Read it.

    The salient point is the fixation on strategic bombing, to the de-prioritisation of maritime requirements which are of course an entirely separate subject and which require specialised aircraft (like the Cuckoo torpedo bomber discussed in the text), and personnel completely integrated with the RN. The central fallacy was the idea that because it flies it must be developed and manned by a separate set of people. The aircraft side wasn't got right until the FAA was able to buy American aircraft like the Avenger, Martlet and Corsair, and the Liberator and Catalina were available to Coastal Command. Hobbs makes the point that it is a pity Harris didn't think about how all the fuel he was using got to Britain. Hobbs also demonstrates how the mere presence of an aircraft over a convoy forced the U-boats to dive and miss their shot.

    Re the RFC the qn is why it was unable to field the numbers of aircraft and pilots it needed, or procure a sufficiency of engines, and had to beg off the RNAS*, and why instead of developing strategic bombing on its own behalf (as the US Army did later on) it feebly objected to the RNAS showing it up by doing what the RFC wasn't, the RNAS requirement having grown out of the need to destroy the Zeppelins in their bases.

    Your want of technical understanding shines bright in the last paragraph of your post.

    * which was managing to maintain its effort in spite of the numbers of aircraft lost through inevitable ditchings until it had invented and produced the aircraft carrier.
  2. Vladimir_Ilyich_Crab
    Having just undertaken a period of study regarding the RFC, this should be a subject of interest to me. That said, I wonder if the more partisan views espoused above are reflecting the content of the book, or the view of the reviewer.

    If the latter, it would probably be better for a review of a non-fiction, military historical publication, to be subjective only about the standard of the publication, rather than inflict the reviewers own views of a subject (Smuts Report, Beatty etc) on people who want to know if this will be a good read or not.

    Will have a mull over whether or not this adds to historical perspective, or is yet another vehicle for the Flying Fish-heads to monk about how hard done by they are.