From Peace to War – Royal Air Force Rearmament Programme, 1934-1940

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Royal Air Force Rearmament Programme, 1934-1940

Expansion Scheme F of 1936 The implementation of Scheme A coincided with new information of Hitler’s rearmament plans which kept flowing in under 1935. ...
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Expansion Scheme F of 1936

The implementation of Scheme A coincided with new information of Hitler’s rearmament plans which kept flowing in under 1935. This revealed the utter inadequacy of the sanctioned provisions. The Air Ministry memorandum of February 1936 reflected a real change of policy. In the words of this document, the Air Ministry had ‘pressed on with the development and production of new types‘ and was now able to formulate ‘a much more effective programme‘ which it hoped could be realised by 1939. Moreover, what was now to be expanded was not the political or the propaganda effect of the Air Force but its real combat power.

The new programme, henceforth to be known as Expansion Scheme F, was sanctioned by the Cabinet in February 1936 and was to remain in force for two years. It marked a complete departure from the purely demonstrative principles of the previous Scheme A and introduced the first real measure of expansion. Under its provisions the Air Force was to acquire more than 8,000 new aircraft over three years compared with the 3,800 over two years under the preceding programme.

Under the new programme the Air Force was not only to be expanded but was also to be effectively reequipped with new and up-to-date types. Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, Fairey Battle, Bristol Blenheim, Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley, Handley-Page Hampden and Vickers Wellesley and Wellington were to form the bulk of the new establishment.

The introduction of Scheme F roughly coincided with the appointment of Lord Swinton as Secretary of State for Air and with important administrative changes in the Air Ministry. Under the new regime the Ministry sponsored great additions to industrial capacity and gave the industry the shape which it was to keep for the next six or seven years.

Scheme F turned out to be the most long-lived of the aircraft programmes. As already mentioned it remained in force for two years, and no other scheme remained undisturbed for a period equally long. Nevertheless, even under that scheme the reequipment of the Air Force fell somewhat behind the hopes of its authors in 1936 and far behind the needs of the time and the rising demands of the Services. At the time of its demise in the spring of 1938 it had run two-thirds of its allotted span with only 4,500 out of its 8,000 aircraft delivered. An even out of these 4,500 aircraft, some 3,000 had in fact been ordered under the earlier programmes and were not of the most advanced types.

In fact, by Spring 1938, not a single production Spitfire, Wellington, Hampden, Bristol Beaufort, Boulton-Paul Defiant, Blackburn Skua or Westland Lysander were yet available to the RAF service units. The Blenheim, the Hurricane and the Whitley were only just coming into service.

So even if Scheme F had met its quota, there was no reason for the Air Ministry to rest satisfied. The programme was only just sufficient to enable the country to meet the German menace as it appeared at the beginning of 1936 and to match the plans of the Luftwaffe as they were known at that time. But in the meantime both the urgency of the German menace and German armament in the air had greatly grown. Throughout 1936, 1937 and 1938 the international situation moved towards a crisis by a series of successive stages: the occupations of the Rhineland, the Anschluss of Austria and the beginning of the Sudetenland agitation. All through this period Germany rearmed in the air at a constantly rising rate. At each sign of international trouble Germany’s strength in the air had to be reassessed, and the Air Council kept putting forward demands for corresponding increases in the scale of British expansion.

On the positive side, the RAF was the first to overcome the purely financial limits to its expansion, and its rate of growth was higher than that of the other Services. At frequent intervals between 1934 and 1939 the Air Staff assessed the German position more or less accurately and uttered warnings more or less audibly. The effect of the warnings on the Government was to make it well aware of the crucial importance of the air arm. Indeed, as time went on, the dangers of air attack and the overwhelming importance of air defence appeared if anything greater than the war was to prove them to be.

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By Vanessa Alexander  |  2012-05-18 at 04:52  |  permalink

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