When the Cabinet met at 11am on Wednesday 15th March 1922, exactly 80 years ago this week, its collective attention was directed towards the heavens, and specifically to the future of Britain’s air force.
The RAF had been created less than four years earlier, during the final months of the Great War. It was a response to the increasing use of aerial technology that Britain’s enemies were making, and, though it was not to play a particularly important part in the Allied victory, right from the start the RAF, or Junior Service as it would be known, began to develop a reputation for danger, glamour and speed. As a direct result, it provoked jealousy and even anger amongst its cousins in the navy and army.
After the Armistice, in 1920, Winston Churchill decided to use the upstart institution to impose peace on newly-acquired British territory in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). It was cheaper than using land troops and promised to be less messy too, he was told, and so it seemed to him a good option for a war-weary and penniless nation. Others agreed, but not the top brass of the traditional armed forces. On learning of the plans for Mesopotamia, their former indignation about the RAF turned to fear. A fiscal retrenchment was in the offing, the like of which, it was said, had never been seen before, and the Admirals and Field marshals were justifiably worried that their own manpower might be slashed in favour of a flighty newcomer with apparent star qualities.
A debate broke out about what was the right thing to do. In the main it was a rearguard action by the leaders of the army and navy against the popular new service. Their own fears were worked up into diatribes and scaremongering invectives, and published in the newspapers. The risks of Britain being left exposed in some future conflict (which could break out at any moment, they cautioned, with an admonitory glance back at 1914) would be much greater if essential land and sea defences were neglected than if the air force was left to wither on the vine. Patriotism and fairness were pressed into service too. How could it be right, many old-fashioned military men wondered, to reward the principal winners of the battle against the Hun with cuts, while at the same time growing an air force that had done so little?
The fightback was a qualified success. Numerous MPs and others in British public life rallied to the army and navy cause. Not a few even became convinced that the RAF itself should be abolished, as a price worth paying to maintain decent ‘conventional’ forces. But others continued to press the case of the men in light blue. By early 1922, it was clear that the uncertainties over the RAF’s future could not be allowed to continue much longer. And at the Cabinet meeting on 15 March that year, the Lord Privy Seal, Austen Chamberlain, announced that the time had come to bring the matter to a head.
Chamberlain opened the meeting, which like all Cabinet meetings (or almost all) took place in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street, by explaining the circumstances that had made a decision necessary. Admiral Sir Reginald Hall, a hardline Conservative MP and former Director of Naval Intelligence, was planning to introduce an amendment on the subject of air defence in the House of Commons the very next day. If passed, the amendment would have the effect of forcing the Government to create a separate Naval Air Force, and thus would effectively put the RAF out of business. Chamberlain said, as everyone expected, that he was minded to speak out against Hall. The Air Ministry had been established during the War, he said, and ‘as the result of war experience’. It should not ‘lightly be abolished’ now. He felt others around the Cabinet table probably agreed with him, but before proceeding to draft his speech for the following day he needed their formal approval.
He reminded them of some recent conclusions that a defence committee headed by Sir Arthur Balfour, a one-time Conservative Prime Minister, had reached: that for the good of British security ‘the Air Force must be autonomous’ in future, and that ‘in the case of defence against air raid, the Army and the Navy must play a secondary role’.
But he noted also that many with Government salaries did not agree with these statements. This was the point at which he would in the normal course of things turned for a view to the Secretary of State for War. But the man who had recently been appointed to that post, Sir Laming Worthington Evans, was not present. The Cabinet minutes state only that he was away owing to some unspecified ‘indisposition’, and that he had sent along a summary of the Army’s view to be read out in his absence.
‘The feeling of the soldiers was so strong against the propositions contained in Sir Arthur Balfour’s Memorandum,’ the note he had given Chamberlain read, that ‘the scheme of a separate Air Force could not work.’ Chamberlain made clear that the First Sea Lord was similarly sceptical, though he had at least had the good grace to tell the Lord Privy Seal that he would work to make any situation a success.
Discussion went on for some time, with various Ministers having their say. Unsurprisingly, the Secretary of State for Air, Captain F. E. Guest (who subsequently won an Olympic medal at polo) was among them. He expressed the hope that his colleagues would indeed secure the future of the men under his control. His future too, he might have added, for without an air force there would certainly be no more need for an Air Minister. The RAF, he was happy to confirm, ‘was desirous of co-operating with the other Services to the fullest possible extent’, and thus could not be said to pose a threat.
Ultimately the Cabinet agreed with him, and Chamberlain was cleared to say what he wanted the next day. The sole concession to the anti-RAF wing of parliamentary opinion was to be an explicit statement that to spare the service now did not mean to spare it forever. The Government was not laying down ‘a policy for all time’ was to be the form of words Chamberlain would use. But so much was obvious: governments never lay down policies for all time, at least not in democracies. The truth was that Admiral Hall’s demand for a standalone naval air service had been dismissed out of hand, and instead the RAF had been saved. Perhaps it is true that they did not know then that they were saving it forever, but now, eight decades on, it does indeed seem that that was the case.
But was it all blue skies for the RAF from that day to this? Not a bit of it. The service has been through many ups and downs (no pun intended) in the time since 1922, and some of the toughest of them came in the years immediately following. Quite understandably, the air force was obliged to take its fair share of economic pain at a time of great budgetary hardship and fiscal austerity. But this meant that for most of the period up to the outbreak of the Second World War it was getting by on little more than starvation rations. As governments in other countries invested heavily in developing their air attack strength, this could only cause growing alarm. It is interesting to note, in conclusion, that on the very same day the RAF was spared by the Cabinet, its chronic underfunding in comparison with other countries’ air forces was also discussed.
Immediately after the first debate concluded, Captain Guest took the floor with a briefing to colleagues on the rate of growth of the RAF’s equivalent in France. Perhaps he had planned to use this information tactically if the votes in Cabinet had seemed stacked against him. But even when this was not necessary, he decided to share his shocking analysis anyway. After all, as he pointed out, what he had to say represented nothing less than ‘a formidable danger to this country’.
The problem was that while Britain was increasing the size of her air force at a rate of 23 aeroplanes per annum, across the Channel the French were doing so by as many as 150 planes a month. That France was still Britain’s ally apparently counted for nothing in this regard. Raw individual power was all that mattered, and this, Guest said, was evidence of a ‘Continental air menace’ in the making. (Evidence too, we might observe in hindsight, of a certain growing anxiety about Britain’s own global preeminence.)
So what was the Cabinet’s response? Well, very little, would be the polite way to put it. None of them wanted Britain to be weak, of course; most of them were Tories, after all. But with budgets to be balanced and a debt mountain to scale, what more could they do than offer words of comfort? They huffed and puffed a bit, on this as on many other issues, but there was to be no subsidising of expanded aeroplane construction or anything like that. Instead, the issue was kicked into the long grass: put before yet another defence committee for consideration and kept more generally under active observation.
In the economic quagmire that was Britain in 1922 there was little else that could be done (or certainly that would be done by a group of fiscal hawks). Just as today, even causes close to Government Ministers’ hearts had to be sacrificed at the insatiable altar of penny-pinching and economic discipline.