The Royal Navy's Air Service in the Great War, David Hobbs

The Royal Navy's Air Service in the Great War, David Hobbs

The RNAS began life as the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, which was originally set up as a unified air service. However by the outbreak of the First World War the two wings of the RFC had split, and the RNAS was fully integrated into the Navy.

In the first few months of the war the RNAS was often involved in areas entirely unrelated to aviation, mainly because of the many enthusiasms of Winston Churchill. This included the use of armoured cars, armoured trains and the start of the development of the tank, while the Navy provided ground troops who attempted to defend Antwerp and Ostend.

The RNAS had one advantage early in its existence – the Navy was used to operating with the most modern technology, and purchasing that technology from a wide range of private companies (this was especially true of smaller warships – many of the design features of pre-war destroyers were decided by their builders), while the Army tended to move slower, and often used its own factories. This was reflected in their sources of aircraft, with the RFC using many products of the Royal Aircraft Factory while the Navy used many Sopwith aircraft (even the famous Sopwith Camel first entered service with RNAS squadrons). 

This book has two overlapping themes. Aviation was a young venture in 1914, and naval aviation was only just taking its first steps. The RNAS thus had to solve a series of technical problems before it could effectively operation aircraft to support the fleet. This saw them build seaplane carriers, launch fighters from platforms on the top of capital ship gun turrets and develop floating platforms that could be towed behind smaller ships, as well as developing the aircraft carrier, only just failing to bring HMS Argus , the world’s first through deck aircraft carrier (beating USS Langley into service by four years). The Argus had many of the features that became standard on later aircraft carriers, apart from the island superstructure and even that was tested on her. If the war had continued in 1919 she might have made quite a name for herself, and the Navy was planning a massed torpedo bomber attack on the German fleet in its anchorages, on a scale that had more in common with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor than the Fleet Air Arm’s attack on Taranto. 
The second theme are the operations themselves – once the ‘how’ had been worked out the RNAS became increasingly involved in naval operations, providing reconnaissance aircraft, fighters to defend the fleet against Zeppelins and German reconnaissance aircraft, getting involved in anti-submarine warfare and planning for direct attacks on enemy warships.

Towards the end of the war a debate began about the wisdom of having two separate air services, and in April 1918 the RNAS and RFC were merged into the new RAF. The author makes it very clear that he sees this as a mistake, and gives a series of good reasons why the RNAS should have retained control of aircraft serving with the fleet. However it does rather skip over the arguments against the RNAS operating fighter squadrons on the Western Front or getting involved in strategic bombing. While the solution developed in 1918 was clearly a mistake (and didn’t last for long, with the Fleet Air Arm being formed as part of the RAF in 1924). The Navy’s defence of its air service wasn’t well handled, but their task might have been easier if the RNAS was more clearly focused on naval aviation.

This is an excellent study of one of the most important parts of the Royal Navy during the Great War, and adds a great deal to our understanding of the air war, often dominated by studies of the RFC and RAF.

1 - Origins
2 - Practical Progress
3 - The Outbreak of War
4 - The First Strikes by Aircraft
5 - Technology and Technique
6 - A Widening War
7 - Armoured Cars, Trains, Tanks and Aircraft Procurement
8 - The RNAS at Sea and Ashore
9 - The Use of Aircraft in Fleet Operations
10 - 1917 - Expansion and Reorganisation
11 - Deck Landing
12 - Training and Experience
13 - Politics
14 - The Report that Forgot about Sea Power
15 - 1918: The RNAS's Final Year
16 - HMS Argus - The World's First True Aircraft Carrier
17 - Tondern and the Planned Attack on the High Seas Fleet in Harbour
18 - Retrospection

Author: David Hobbs
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 352
Publisher: Seaforth
Year: 2017

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