[Cross posted at Birmingham “On War”]
The conventional wisdom is that British air defence was, in A. J. P. Taylor’s words, ‘despised and comparatively neglected before the war’ and that victory in the Battle of Britain was the result of innovations: of radar, the Spitfire and the Hurricane, and their combination in the ‘Dowding System’. This chapter examines British air defence transformation and innovation from the creation of the Home Defence Air Force in 1922 until the formation of Fighter Command in 1936. Counter-revisionist interpretations of appeasement recognise the government’s wholly defensive military strategy abandoned France and failed to deter Hitler, despite Britain’s relative military strength. Yet air defence is somewhat neglected in the historiography of British interwar air power, which focuses on Trenchard’s strategic bombing doctrine and its failure in 1939-42. This chapter challenges the conventional wisdom by arguing that successive interwar governments comparatively prioritised air defence, which was seen as a continuation of Britain’s long-standing maritime strategy, shaped by the need for economy, and the public fear of the bomber and of bloody land conflict. Furthermore, though successive Chiefs of the Air Staff favoured strategic bombing as a means of deterrence and to reinforce the RAF’s independent strategic role, there remained a strong commitment to, and expertise in, air defence throughout the Service. In contrast to its blind faith in strategic bombing, the RAF transformed its air defence scheme following cabinet direction in 1922-23, because of the French air menace, and again in 1934-35, following the identification of Germany as the long-term threat to Britain. On each occasion, the RAF further developed the innovative system of early warning, centralised control and co-ordinated fighter and anti-aircraft gun engagement zones devised to defend London in 1917-18, and which was fundamental to the Service’s formation. The transformation of air defence used objective evaluation, bespoke aircraft design and scientific advice to both drive and incorporate innovation.
By John Alexander, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham
(This is an abstract from our forthcoming book on transformation and innovation in the British Military)