One hundred years of an air force inspired by General Smuts
Last week fighter aircraft flying in formation to look like the figure "100" swooped down The Mall and over Buckingham Palace to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Royal Air Force (RAF). Nearby in Parliament Square stood the statue of Jan Christiaan Smuts, often described as the founding father of the RAF.
How did this come about? In May, June, and July 1917, more than 300 people were killed when German aircraft dropped bombs on London and elsewhere in the penultimate year of the First World War. This was the first time aircraft, only a recent invention, had struck directly at an enemy instead of simply supporting ships at sea and armies in the field. The result was consternation.
The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, appointed himself and General Smuts to a committee to decide how to meet this new threat. Smuts, described by the British military historian Max Hastings as a "rehabilitated Boer" and one of the British Empire's "foremost heroes", had graduated from anti-British foe during the Boer War to membership of Lloyd George's Imperial War Cabinet.
By August 1917, while Lloyd George was busy with the conduct of the war, Smuts had single-handedly produced what became known as the "Smuts report". "My father's conclusion," wrote one of his sons, was that "we can only defend this island effectively against terror attack by offensive measures and by attacking the enemy in his airbases on the continent and in that way destroying his power of attacking us across the channel."
In his report General Smuts wrote, "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."
These were chillingly prescient words. Barely more than 20 years later precisely such devastation was being inflicted throughout Europe during the Second World War by bombers bearing the colours of perhaps a dozen different nations, among them Britain, the US, South Africa, Russia, and Germany.
Smuts's opponents in the meantime were in Whitehall in London. His key proposal was that an air force should be established as an independent service alongside the navy and the army instead of remaining subordinate to these other two services. This was the last thing the admirals and the generals wanted and they fought rearguard actions against the Smuts report. But their own failures during the First World War had discredited them, and they were overruled by Lloyd George. The Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were merged to form the new RAF on 1 April 1918.
During the Second World War the RAF won the Battle of Britain against Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe in 1940. Along with the naval convoy system, it played a key role in finally winning the Battle of the Atlantic against Karl Doenitz's U-boats in 1943. Without air supremacy provided by the RAF and the US Air Force, the landings by the armies of the Western Allies in Normandy on D-Day in 1944 would probably not have been possible.
That supremacy arose from the bombing of German oil and other installations, with the result that Germany was not able to produce, let alone fly, all the aircraft it required. But British and American bombing also targeted German cities, while the Germans of course did the same to cities in Britain, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia and elsewhere. Smuts lived to see the terrible devastation he had predicted.
The head of RAF Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, believed that bombing alone could win the war. Although Prime Minister Winston Churchill did not share this wrong-headed belief, he ensured that Air Chief Marshal Harris was able to continue with his campaign of saturation bombing.
On 11th November this year ceremonies in many parts of the world will mark the centenary of the signing of the armistice that ended the First World War – only a few months after the flypast over London to commemorate the centenary of one of the instruments that helped to win the Second.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.