Expansion Scheme A of 1934
In March 1932 the hypothesis of ten-year peace was revoked and the Government called upon the Committee of Imperial Defence to reconsider the fundamental conceptions of Empire defence. By the middle of 1933 Germany for the first time reappeared in official discussions as a potential enemy, and in the autumn of the following year the Cabinet decided to correct in the course of the next five years the accumulated armament deficiencies, thus by implication halving the ‘safe’ period within which no war was expected.
By 1934 the first expansion programme deserving that name began to be discussed by the Services and by the Government. In the course of the following year the Committee of Imperial Defence reviewed the condition of the armed forces and recommended enlarged scales of equipment for three Services.
In the spring of 1934 Prime Minister Baldwin announced in Parliament that the Government had decided to establish parity with Germany in the air. Consequently, the first Royal Air Force Expansion Scheme, Scheme A, was approved by the Cabinet on 18th July. The scheme provided for the growth of the Royal Air Force to a strength of 111 front-line squadrons at home and overseas to a total number of 1,252 aircraft, together with sixteen Fleet Air Arm squadrons counting 213 aircraft. These objectives were to be achieved by March 1939. Sizeable in numbers, this force was devised mainly as a ‘shop window’ strength to deter Germany. The objective was merely a visible first-line capable of producing the maximum political effect both at home and abroad: to reassure the public about the Prime Minister’s promises and as far as possible to impress the Italians and Germans with a show of strength. As a consequence, little attention was paid to modernisation of aircraft types or provision for reserves.
From that time onwards the history of British rearmament would be one of continually mounting requirements and of a progressively growing output of munitions industry, but the initial progress was very slow, for a number of reasons. To begin with, the diplomatic and strategic assumptions which until the end of 1938 underlay rearmament were not those of an eventual war. The more or less acute crises over Manchuria and Abyssinia did not prompt war plans in the Government and the thoughts of the nation. Until 1935 international disarmament was still a popular hope and still the object of British foreign policy. Until late 1936, the object of the successive rearmament programmes was not so much preparation for war as the reinforcement of peace. Their purpose was to back up diplomatic efforts with a show of force and thereby to impress the would-be aggressors and to reassure public opinion at home. The early stages of rearmament were therefore dominated by the need for a ‘deterrent’: display-a first-line strength impressive on paper but not necessarily backed by sufficient establishments or by industrial reserves.
Even more inhibiting were the fundamental financial difficulties. No significant financial measures were undertaken to cover the increased military spending during 1934. In 1935, allocations for the rearmament appeared for the first time in the budget, improving for the first time from the level established back in the 1920s. At the same time these proved to be inadequate in relation to their objects. Neither the Cabinet nor presumably the country was as yet prepared to shoulder the financial weight of Scheme A and other contemporary armament proposals. Even in May 1935, after Mr. Eden and Sir John Simon had travelled to the Continent and come back convinced that Hitler meant business, an additional vote of £1 million for the time being measured the financial response to the situation.
It is possible to argue that finance was not the only limit to the expansion of the RAF before 1936. It is probable that in 1934 and 1935 purely technical considerations stood in the way of immediate ‘all-out’ reequipment. Technical progress in the mid-thirties was on the verge of new and important developments: high-speed monoplanes, all-metal construction, new powerful engines. The Air Staff began to visualise the expanded air force in terms of aircraft which in those years had not emerged from the drawing boards. And while the advanced types – the Vickers Wellington, the Supermarine Spitfire and others like them – were not yet available, the Air Staff were not at all anxious to encumber the squadrons with large supplies of obsolescent types.
So what with the financial stringency and the absence of new types, the early stages of reequipment were slow and tentative. The Air Ministry did not ask for a fully balanced modern air force and the Government was not very anxious to supply it. Needless to say, this stage of the programme was merely the first measure of expansion and others were to follow.