At the end of the First World War Britain had the most advanced naval air service in the world, and in particular the best developed air carrier force. By 1939 that lead had been lost, and although the Royal Navy had some of the most modern carriers in service, the aircraft they carried were outdated, the expectations of what carrier aircraft would be asked to do were wrong, and there were almost no reserves of personnel or aircraft to make up losses. In contrast the US and Japanese navies both had full control over their air services, and more modern aircraft.
This book combines a history of the Fleet Air Arm in the interwar period and up to the end of the Norwegian campaign in 1940, with a look at the career of Bill Lucy, the first British air ace of the Second World War, and leader of the first successful air attack on a major warship, the sinking of the cruiser Konigsberg. This is a rather effective technique, giving us an overview of the problems faced by the FAA and the way in which talented individuals could overcome them.
The basic problem faced by the Royal Navy was that it lost control of its own aircraft in 1918 when the RAF was formed by the merger of the RFC and the RNAS. This caused all sorts of problems, starting with the RAF’s firm belief in the strategic bomber. Before the development of radar it was reasonable to assume that the bomber would always get through, and that a prolonged bombing campaign would cause so much disruption that it would be impossible to maintain an army in the field. The Royal Navy’s aircraft wouldn’t be involved in this, and would only be involved in clashes with other naval aircraft. At lower levels it imposed a system of dual ranks and dual control on the Fleet Air Arm (one example is that air crew were subject to Navy rules while on board ship and RAF rules when based on land).
Not all of the problems can be blamed on the period of duel control. The Admiralty still had control over the aircraft specifications it issued, and the need for dual purpose aircraft led to designs such as the Blackburn Skua, designed as a fighter and dive bomber. The Navy accepted the general British view that naval fighters would tend to be less advanced than their land based equivilents, and that naval fighters would normally be used against other naval fighters, which would suffer from the same restraints. There was also a general desire to have a second crewmember to act as a navigator. In contrast the US Navy ordered high powered single seat fighters. When the Skua entered service in 1939 the US Navy was still operating the biplane Grumman F3F, but the US fighter was 40mph faster than the Skua, and 10mph faster than the Sea Gladiator, its nearest British rival.
The Norwegian campaign proved that almost all of the pre-war expectations about air power were wrong. The RAF’s much vaunted strategic bomber force was of no use against an opponent that already had a strong enough army for the campaign in question (even it Bomber Command had been strong enough to do actual damage to German industry in 1939-40), tactical air power turned out to be a very important component of modern warfare, the Fleet Air Arm was required to operate over land after all and British carrier aircraft soon had to compete with the most modern German aircraft, as the Luftwaffe moved into Norway. As a result there are repeated examples here of Skuas being unable to actually catch German bombers (although they could drive them off and prevent them carrying out their planned attacks), and the British suffered very heavy losses when they clashed with the Bf 109.
This is a fascinating account of a difficult time in the history of the Royal Navy, when it struggled to cope with the results of erroneous pre-war policies and found itself fighting an entirely unexpected type of war. The Norwegian campaign saw the Navy begin to learn from its early mistakes and successfully operate the first carrier strike group, but also make the sort of mistakes that led to the loss of the carrier Glorious. Lucy’s own career shows how significant simple luck could be – after surviving many dangerous missions, he was lost in a clash with a single bomber.
1 – RAF Contigents in His Majesty’s Ships
2 – Politics and the Trenchard/ Keyes Agreement
3 – Joining the RN as an Officer and Training to be a pilot
4 – Technology: Ships, Aircraft, Weapons and Tactics
5 – Doctrine, Operation and Exercises
6 – Observers
7 – Progress in the United States Navy
8 – The Inskip Award
9 – The Air Branch of the Royal Navy in 1939
10 – Royal Navy Aircraft in 1939
11 – Squadron Command
12 – Naval Aviation in the First Months of the Second World War
13 – The German Invasion of Norway and Strike Operations from RNAS Hatston
14 – HMS Furious: The First Strike Carrier in Action
15 – HM Ships Ark Royal and Glorious in Action Off Norway
16 – Killed in Action
17 – Heavy Losses after the Withdrawel from Narvik
18 – Retrospection
Author: David Hobbs