On 3 January 1917 a new committee, the Second Air Board, was set up under the presidency of Lord Cowdray, a Yorkshireman who had built his fortune constructing railways, docks, dams and harbours around the world. The board took on responsibility for designing aircraft and engines (actually making them was now the province of the Munitions Ministry) and for allocating them to the army and navy. Representatives of all the departments concerned, including the naval and military air executives, were gathered under one roof in offices at the Cecil Hotel in the Strand, London. Production was overseen by another powerful figure from the industrial world, a Scotsman, Sir William Weir. By the end of the year production of new types (which, on the whole, had the advantage over their German opponents) was in full swing and there was no shortage of pilots to fly them.
By then the move to create a single, independent air force was building up powerful momentum. It was the air war over Britain – rather than events in France or at sea – that made it unstoppable. Compared with the bloodletting in other theatres, the casualties caused by the German air raids of 1915–17 were miniscule. Nor was the material damage great – about £3 million worth of property was destroyed. The moral effect, however, was huge. The panic that gripped the streets of London when the Germans appeared overhead was not confined to the masses. The alarm felt by their masters was just as intense, as was demonstrated on the day of the great Gotha raid of 7 July 1917, when three tons of explosives dropped on the capital killed fifty-seven people. It was a Saturday and as ministers made their way to Downing Street for an emergency cabinet session, they witnessed the alarm of citizens in the streets. The mood was catching. The demeanour of the politicians was noted disapprovingly by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, who was at the meeting and wrote in a letter to Haig that ‘one would have thought the whole world was coming to an end . . . I could not get a word in edgeways.’
The raid crystallized the feeling that arrangements were hopelessly inadequate to fight the air war. There was no doubt in the public mind as to where the responsibility for protecting civilians lay. Ira Jones had finished his flying training at Northolt, Middlesex, and had just returned to the Regent Palace Hotel in London after a night out when he ‘heard the air raid buzzers for the first time . . . I have never seen the mood of a happy throng change so quickly,’ he recorded afterwards. ‘One moment, all was gaiety, the next there was a stampede of shrieking creatures who had been transformed from apparent fairies into wild women. I followed the mob from the grill room into the foyer, where most of the hotel’s customers had assembled. One “lady”, pointing at me, angrily screeched: “You’re in the Flying Corps! Why aren’t you up there, chasing those devils away?”’
Something had to be done. Four days after the July raid General Smuts was instructed by the Cabinet to examine ‘the air organization generally and the direction of aerial operations’. Jan Christian Smuts was a brilliant all-rounder who had succeeded at everything he had tried. He had turned from the law to politics and then to warfare, fighting the British in the Boer War, then negotiating a peace that unified South Africa and established Boer dominance. His former enemies became his friends and supporters. He led the British military campaign against the Germans in East Africa before being sent to London. There, in the summer of 1917, the Prime Minister David Lloyd George invited him to join the War Policy Committee.
Smuts took less than a month to produce his first report. It ran to only a few thousand words and its recommendations were straightforward and commonsensical, restricted to the sphere of improving London’s dismal anti-aircraft defences. There were to be more guns and searchlights, and three new RFC fighter squadrons, controlled by a central organization, the London Area Defence.
His second report, which came out in August, was a far more significant document. Smuts employed an apocalyptic tone, which echoed the panicky mood of July. For him, the crucial factor was how to prepare for a dreadful new era of warfare, of which the Gotha raids had provided only a glimpse.
‘As far as can be foreseen,’ he wrote, ‘there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use, and the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.’
Like his predecessors, Smuts came to the conclusion that to produce an air force capable of meeting the challenge, the RFC and the RNAS would have to amalgamate. The efficiencies created and the extra aircraft production generated by the reforms of Cowdray and Weir would allow the establishment of a bombing force that was capable of reaching out to German cities and factories.
Thus, the principal rationale for an independent air force was to produce a bombing fleet that could punish Germany for attacking the British homeland and deter it from doing so in the future. As it was, the Independent Force that resulted was stillborn and its ‘strategic’ bombing campaign against the war economy of the enemy never amounted to more than a series of incoherent and patchy raids. In the judgement of Arthur Harris, a young RFC pilot at the time, who would go on to preside over the effort to reduce German cities to rubble a generation later, ‘the bomber was in no way an important weapon of the 1914–18 war’.
At the core of the report was Smuts’s recommendation that the separate existences of the RFC and the RNAS should cease and that they should be reborn as a single entity: the Royal Air Force (RAF). As was appropriate for what was the world’s first independent air service, it would have its own government department: the Air Ministry. However, this amalgamation was no more popular at the top of the army and navy now than it had been when it was first mooted. The man who might be expected to give it a warm welcome – Hugh Trenchard – was initially opposed to it, believing that the structural, buttressing relationship that had grown up between the RFC and the ground forces would be weakened if the air force stood alone. He would nonetheless agree to be the RAF’s first Chief of the Air Staff, a post he held for only a few months before falling out with scheming air minister Lord Rothermere.
In peacetime it is unlikely that such an institutional evolution would have taken place at such speed – or indeed at all, given the strength and vehemence of opposing institutional interests. But the decision had been taken at a time of emergency in the middle of a war that seemed likely to continue for years. The likelihood of – and domestic terror of – air attack was almost certain to grow. In the eyes of politicians and the public, a joint air force seemed to offer a rational response to the threat. Wrested from Admiralty control, the navy’s aircraft would now be free for land operations. The new bombing force offered the illusion of retaliation against the Germans for their air assault on the homeland, as well as the possibility that the Germans might be deterred from continuing with it. The process had gone too far to be deflected by sophisticated military arguments. The decision was made, the official birthday set, and, on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force came into the world.
This historic moment was barely noticed by those it most affected. In France the Germans were about to launch the second phase of their Spring Offensive and the airmen were locked in an exhausting series of mass battles over the Somme plains. However, one event seemed to offer hope that events were going the Allies’ way. On the morning of 21 April Manfred von Richtofen was on the ground at Cappy airfield, about ten miles south-east of Albert on the banks of the Somme, waiting for the ground mist to lift. At 10.20 a.m. it began to clear and, in his Fokker triplane, he led a flight off to intercept some British aircraft reported to be well over the German lines and heading their way.
He was in a sombre mood. A few days before he had been reflecting on the tone of his boastful autobiography. ‘When I read [my] book I smile at my own insolence,’ he wrote. ‘I am no longer so insolent in spirit.’ Flying alongside him was Leutnant Hans Joachim Wolff who recorded that they saw seven Sopwith Camels flying in their direction, and above them, seven more. Battle was joined. There was the initial, inevitable confusion, then Wolff looked over at Richtofen and saw that he was ‘at extremely low altitude, over the Somme near Corbie, right behind an Englishman’.
The intended victim was in fact a Canadian, twenty-three-year-old Second Lieutenant Wilfred ‘Wop’ May, who was on his first mission and had been told to stay out of the fighting, watch carefully and try and learn something. When a German fighter approached, the temptation was too great and he had gone for him, only for his guns to jam. As he headed for home he looked round to see a blood-red triplane on his tail. He ‘kept on dodging and spinning . . . until I ran out of sky and had to hedge-hop over the ground. Richtofen was firing at me continually.’
As they crossed the German front line, ground troops opened up and the firing continued as they flew over the British trenches. When he reached the Somme, May flattened down close to the water, but as he rounded a bend in the river Richtofen ‘came over the hill. At that point I was a sitting duck. I felt he had me cold.’ Then, seemingly miraculously, Richtofen stopped firing. He too was under attack, from another Canadian, Captain Roy Brown of 209 Squadron, whose report later stated that he ‘dived on a pure red triplane . . . got a long burst into him and he went down vertical.’ Australian machine gunners on the ground also claimed the credit. Either way, Richtofen was dead. His body was retrieved from the wreckage and taken to Poulainville airfield ten miles away. Richtofen was laid out in a hangar on a strip of corrugated metal, staring upwards, in unconscious imitation of the knights that he and his fellow aces were said to resemble.
The following day – ten days before his twenty-sixth birthday – Richtofen was buried with full military honours. Among the mourners was Major Sholto Douglas, who would rise high in the new RAF. He recorded that ‘it was impossible not to feel a little emotional about it’. He nonetheless repeated the general view that the Red Baron was a calculating sort of warrior who used ‘the utmost caution’ and ‘never hesitated to avoid a fight or pull out of one if he thought the odds against him were too great’.
Mick Mannock, who employed the same scientific approach, shed no tears for his rival. ‘I hope he roasted all the way down,’ he was reported to have said on learning of his death. It would soon be his turn. On 26 July Mannock had been out with a novice pilot, showing him the ropes, and had just attacked an enemy two-seater, leaving his pupil to finish it off. Mannock was flying low, breaking one of his own cardinal rules, when a German machine-gun post got his range. The flames he so dreaded sprang from the engine and he spiralled down to his death. Mannock’s demise had a profound effect on his comrades. Ira Jones, by now a veteran pilot and a devoted admirer of ‘the greatest air fighter of all time’, usually recorded the deaths of colleagues with a resigned ‘poor old so-and-so bought it today’, but this was different. ‘Mick is dead,’ he wrote. ‘Everyone is stunned. No one can believe it . . . I have a deep aching void in my breast. I keep on repeating to myself: “It can’t be true. Mick cannot be dead.”’
Of the great aces of the war, very few on any side survived. The British stars, Hawker, Ball, Mannock and McCudden had all gone. The Germans had lost Boelcke, Immelmann and Richtofen, and the French Georges Guynemer and Roland Garros. Aces would reappear in the next war, but they were fewer and their celebrity was more artificial as their personalities were moulded by the official publicity machines to fit the demands of propaganda. The heroic age of air fighting was at an end. From its amateur, makeshift origins military aviation had, in the space of a decade, come to rival the existing services in size and importance. The numbers involved would have seemed incredible to the pilots of the first handful of squadrons as they prepared for that first hair-raising hop across the Channel.
By November 1918 the RAF had swollen to a force of nearly a million. Its 280 squadrons roamed the skies not only of France but of Macedonia, Mesopotamia, Palestine and East Africa. In the course of the First World War they had destroyed 7,054 German aircraft and lost 9,378 aircrew. The airmen’s exploits had won eleven VCs. Soon the life of this vast organization was to be imperilled, however, not by any foreign enemy, but by the politicians who had built it up and by its brothers-in-arms.