‘Despised and Neglected’: Transformation and Innovation in British Air Defence, 1922-1935

[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)


1 Response to “‘Despised and Neglected’: Transformation and Innovation in British Air Defence, 1922-1935”

  1. 1 David Stubbs June 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm

    I recall reading about sound and mirror devices in Graham Wallace’s RAF Biggin Hill (Denham, Pace Reprographics, 1979).

    The book describes how the Instrument Design Establishment (IDE) adapted Biggin Hill’s large mirror developed by the Army for anti-aircraft work. It was an enormous curved concrete disc, twenty five feet in diameter, weighing fifteen tons. The book also describes how the RAF and the Army [Dowding, Game, Fuller and Simon] cooperated to concentrate air defence resources at Biggin Hill. The key to the requirement apparently was the warning time needed to alert the defending fighters. The way to achieve this was to develop more sensitive receivers than the ‘ear-trumpets’ used to warn of Gotha attacks.

    Sound waves from aircraft were reflected onto a directional microphone at the focal point of a circular mirror of concrete, ten feet in diameter, at Broadstairs in Kent, but only when the microphone was selectively tuned to the right frequency could an operator detect an aircraft with reasonable accuracy twenty miles away. IDE experiments the their larger mirror at Biggin Hill showed that the bigger the mirror the greater the sensitivity of the equipment, but detection of an aircraft could only be guaranteed ten miles away. This gave the defending fighters five minutes warning and it was better than nothing so a chain of such mirrors was planned for the south and east coasts.

    As you would expect as bomber performance increased the concrete mirrors became increasingly obsolete and in 1927 the Air Council had to reconsider the problem of early warning detection. Consequently, the requirement was set to require the detection of aircraft twenty-five miles from the coast and within ten miles from the coast their height, speed, course and number were to be compiled so they were known with accuracy as they crossed the coast. In response the Acoustical Section designed and built a two-hundred foot long strip mirror at Dungeness. Subsequent planning aimed to integrate these strip mirrors at twenty-mile intervals, supplemented by thirty foot circular mirrors every eight miles. I gather that was the blueprint anyway. Looking forward to hearing more.

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