British rearmament in the period preceding the World War II began and grew with the rising danger of war with Germany. This account details the chronology and turns of the rearmament of the Royal Air Force in the years prior to World War II and the fateful Battle of Britain. Much has been written previously about the tremendous technical development in British and German aviation industry of the late 1930s. In the aviation literature dealing with World War II period, the problems of production and organizational built-up of the RAF are discussed much less frequently, maybe with an exception of a few spectacular delays in the introduction of modern and later successful aircraft such as the Supermarine Spitfire. Yet it is important to understand the magnitude of industrial mobilisation which was necessary to equip and prepare the RAF for the approaching war with Germany. This has to be done in broader perspective than that of a single manufacturer or air arm. The expansion was characterised by tremendous speed and many difficulties, both of which would have caused equally severe headaches to today’s decision makers as they did to those of over 70 years ago. Indeed, speculations can be raised if British rearmament could have taken alternative directions, and such action might have changed the odds during the first year of World War II – either to Britain’s favour or otherwise.
Political Situation in the Early 1930s
By early 1930s, the comfortable sense of security and the expectations of undisturbed peace which characterised the twenties were rapidly disappearing. The first rumblings of the storm came from the Far East when the Japanese military aggression in Manchuria, then into China, soon flamed into a regular war. The shock of the Japanese action was still echoing in the British press when, in July 1932, the Nazi party achieved their biggest election success, becoming the largest political force in the Reichstag and thus an obvious influential component of consecutive German governments. In only six months, on 30th January 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor. The successive establishment of a system of dictatorship and totalitarian control in Germany, and the violence of the events could not escape attention of broad political spheres in Britain. Through 1934 and 1935 the political configuration of the Axis was taking shape. At the end of 1934 the Japanese Government gave notice of intention to terminate the Washington Naval Treaty. In 1935 Italy embarked upon her adventure in Abyssinia and in a short time the danger of conflict over the enforcement of sanctions appeared very serious. Also in March 1935 Germany repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, at the same time declaring openly the intention to re-arm. The Luftwaffe was officially formed and the existence of the new service made public by Hermann Goering in an interview with a British journalist on 10th March.
During these years the need for rearmament was far from self-evident. In March 1934, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin proposed an Air Disarmament Conference as means of preventing the air armament race among major world powers. However, the general World Disarmament Conference, which fruitlessly continued in Geneva for 27 months, dissolved in May 1934 without any agreement being reached. As time would show, this was the last international disarmament conference for over a decade.
The Rations of the RAF
The overall assessment of the rearmament programme must take into account the low level of military equipment in the hands of the Forces in the early thirties. In dealing with the pace of RAF rearmament it is, therefore, important to get the true measure of the deficiency which the rearmament sought to remedy.
The manner in which the deficiency arose is clear enough. In the twenties, war seemed remote, and the hopes of prolonged peace ran very high. It is, therefore, no wonder that throughout most of the inter-war period the programmes of the Services were governed by the assumption that no major was to be expected. The peace hypothesis since its first formulation in August 1919 had taken a somewhat different form from year to year and from Service to Service, but from July 1928 until March 1932 the approved formula, as agreed by the Committee of Imperial Defence, was ‘that it should be assumed for the purpose of framing the estimates of the fighting services that at any given date there will be no major war for ten years‘. Acting on this somewhat naive assumption the Government of the day allowed the establishment and the material equipment of the Forces to run down.
The level of equipment at the starting point of rearmament was thus very low. In most of respects the materiel situation in the RAF was worse than the Royal Navy and yet somewhat better than the Army.
In theory, RAF was expanding all through the late twenties and early thirties. By a Government decision in 1923 the Royal Air Force, then greatly reduced by demobilisation and economy campaigns, was to be raised to and maintained at a level of 52 squadrons for home defence with a first-line strength of 594 machines. This decision, however, was not back by sufficient financial appropriations and remained largely a dead letter. Aircraft for new formations were coming forward very slowly, sometimes not at all as shown in the following table. The discrepancy between numbers of programmed and actually delivered aircraft is obvious. No wonder that by the beginning of 1934 the Home Force was still only 42 squadrons strong, ten squadrons short of its minimum objective.
Aircraft production at this level was devoted more to the re-equipment of some of the existing squadrons than to the building up of an air force to the minimum laid down in 1923. Yet even the re-equipment was little more than nominal. The types available for replacement, although more recent, were not only few in number, but as a rule were below the technical and operational standards of the day. As late as 1935 the principal new fighter coming into services was the Gloster Gauntlet with a speed of 230 mph, and the ‘new’ bombers were the Hawker Hind and Handley-Page Hendon with a load-carrying capacity of 500 lb and 1,500 lb at a range of 430 miles and 920 miles respectively. The general impression is that throughout these years the quality of RAF equipment was falling below the standards which were being established in foreign countries such as Italy and the United States.
With financial provisions and new output at a very low level, the Air Ministry had great difficulty in maintaining its industrial reserves. The aircraft firms, including the principal engine manufacturers, found themselves in a position of chronic penury and sometimes on the very verge of bankruptcy. Westland Aircraft Company at one time tried to keep alive by making stainless steel beer barrels. Not all the firms were in straits quite so desperate or were compelled to adopt expedients equally unusual, but very could have survived without the tutelage of the Air Ministry.
In order to maintain a nucleus of an aircraft industry and to keep in existence facilities for aircraft design, the Air Ministry had to ration out all new work among some sixteen substantial aircraft companies. The system helped to consolidate the so-called ‘family’ of aircraft firms and to establish links between the Air Ministry and the aircraft industry which were to prove most valuable in future years.
The diet, though just sufficient to keep the bulk of the firms alive, was too meagre to enable them to keep pace with the aircraft industry abroad, especially in the United States, and to acquire the equipment and technique for quantity production. The Air Council and the Air Staff had thus every reason for thinking that their Service was being starved out.