Air Ministry

by Sir Arthur Street, KCB, KB, CMG, CIE, MC, Permanent Undersecretary of State for Air.

As governing body over RAF operations, the Air Ministry is responsible for the conduct of Britain's aerial war.

When Armistice was declared in November, 1918, the clerks win the newly-formed Air Ministry flung open the windows of their offices and tossed bundles of documents hilariously into the streets below. Thus was heralded in the age of peace and plenty, which ended abruptly in 1931, when a Japanese army crossed the Chinese frontier into Manchuria.

Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force, which, in 1918, was the largest in the world, had dwindled to insignificant proportions. The Air Ministry was correspondingly small. Slowly and reluctantly the British public came to realize that the years following "the war to end wars" were not the beginning of the millennium but the uneasy prelude to a world upheaval in which the peace-loving nations would be forced to take up arms in spite of their principles and in defense of them. So the RAF started to grow again and with it the Air Ministry — very slowly at first but with ever-increasing momentum as the warning notes grew louder.

In 1933, a sinister tyrant became master of Germany and a stream of refugees spread tales of brutal persecution and preparation for war. A year later, a modest dose of expansion was prescribed for the RAF. There were to be four new squadrons at once, followed by 11 more in 1935 and 1936. Events in Europe were soon to lead to successive enlargements.

The planning then was on sound lines and the outbreak of war found Britain with an Air Force which, though woefully small, was in quality more than a match for its adversaries. Schemes were drawn up by the Air Ministry in those prewar days for the expansion of the aircraft industry. "Shadowā€¯ factories were projected to be kept on a care and maintenance basis until the emergency arose. Reserves of essential stocks and materials were laid down. Today, the Ministry of Aircraft Production — a wartime offshoot of the Air Ministry — controls the operation of a vast production machine and it has had great success in overcoming the problems of large-scale production in wartime. But a share of the credit is due to those Air Force officers and civil servants who, in the years before the war, designed the machine and settled the shape it takes today.

As the tempo of events quickened, as the Italians showered the blessings of civilisation (in the form of high explosives and poison gas) on the defenseless Abyssinians, as Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland, invaded Austria, seized Czechoslovakia and attacked Poland, the Air Ministry made a prodigious effort to catch up with the growing and formidable air power of the Germans who had started to build up their forces at a time when we hoped, prayed and half-believed that to start a second world war was a form of lunacy to which no sane nation would succumb. Slowly we realised that other than sane people had to be reckoned with.

The sudden expansion of the RAF led to a corresponding expansion of the administrative machine in the Air Ministry. Once the Ministry was housed in one building. Now, in the third year of war, it is spread over 60 buildings and 10 towns. The telephone directory, giving the names of its officials, runs into 150 pages of close print. Inevitably, there was a great dilution of experience and a heavy burden was placed on those few experienced officials who carried through the transition from a peace to a war footing.

With the outbreak of war, staffs were evacuated from London to the provincial towns so as to be less vulnerable to air attack. This brought in its train a number of administrative problems. Officials had to be billeted in overcrowded towns, while there were difficulties in keeping contact between branches once working side by side and now separated by hundreds of miles. At the same time a large number of the younger civil servants, whose experience was just beginning to be of value to the Ministry, were called up for service with the fighting forces. Meanwhile, expansion continued apace and there had to be large importations of inexperienced staff, many of them women. They rose nobly to the occasion. Somehow the peacetime standards of efficiency had to be maintained and even improved. A delayed decision might lose a battle; a wrong decision might lose the war. There was great need for secrecy and the army of temporary civil servants, who now form a large proportion of the junior staff, had to be taught to be security-conscious. A word carelessly spoken about the secrets of radio-location or the performance of our fighters might have lost us the Battle of Britain. By the diligence and zeal of the Air Ministry's officials — RAF officers and civil servants alike — these difficulties have been overcome and though there will always be critics, the truth is that the Air Ministry in wartime functions as an efficient business organisation, larger in scope than the biggest commercial set-up — an oil company, a railroad or a steel corporation.

At the apex is the Air Minister, whose full title is Secretary of State for Air. Subject only to overhead decisions by the War Cabinet on major questions of policy, he has sole and undivided responsibility for the business of the Air Ministry and on him falls the burden of defending its actions in the House of Commons, of which he is a member. He is assisted in his arduous duties by two junior Ministers, the Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State. One is a member of the House of Commons. The other is a member of the House of Lords and represents the Air Ministry in the upper house.

The Air Council is the governing body of the RAF, and orders from the Air Ministry to RAF formations are issued "By Command of the Air Council." The Secretary of State presides over the Council. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Commons) is its vice president. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Lords) is one of its members.

The Air Council also includes the executive heads of the chief departments into which the Air Ministry is divided:

  1. The chief of the air staff (planning, operations, tactics, intelligence),
  2. the air member for personnel (personnel management, welfare and health of RAF and WAAF personnel at home and overseas),
  3. the air member for supply and organisation (supply and servicing of equipment, logistics, transportation, civil engineering),
  4. the air member for training (combat and flight training of aircrews and technical training of ground staff),
  5. the permanent under-secretary of state (policy, exchequer, purchases, accounts, public relations and administration).

All these, except the last who is a civil servant, are high-ranking officers of the RAF. The chief of the air staff, as an air chief marshal, has the same rank as the air officer commanding-in-chief of Fighter, Coastal and other operational Commands of the RAF, but he is in effect No 1 man of the RAF. Civilian experts in administration work in the departments of the "air members"; and RAF officers work alongside civilians in the department of the permanent under-secretary of state. This integration of RAF officers and civil servants working in close harmony and understanding each other's qualities and limitations is a valuable feature of the organisation.

There are four other members of the Air Council who are not heads of any Air Ministry departments. One is the vice chief of the air staff. One advises the Air Council on financial and kindred questions. The other two belong to the Ministry of Aircraft Production.

The Air Council may be likened to the board of directors of an industrial undertaking. Its main job is to keep the RAF in the air, well-trained, well-equipped, fighting fit and punching the enemy all the time where it hurts most. Its chief functions are therefore administrative and executive but it also acts in a judicial capacity. Thus, it reviews the sentences of courts martial which it can reduce but not increase; and it is the High Court of Appeal to which persons subject to the RAF code of discipline can apply for redress of grievances, real or imagined.

The organisation of the Air Ministry does not end with the departments controlled by the Air Council. The civil aviation department, which in wartime directs the resources of British civil aviation at home and overseas in the interests of the war effort, comes under the secretary of state for air, although it is administratively controlled by the permanent under-secretary of state.

The meteorological office, which performs the all-important service of giving the RAF the weather reports without which no operation could be successfully planned, is in itself a vast organisation with stations scattered throughout the world. It serves the Army and the general public as well as the RAF. Like the department of civil aviation, it is responsible to the secretary of state for air and is controlled administratively on his behalf by the permanent under-secretary of state.

So much for the "high-up" organisation of the Air Ministry, What of the men and women who spend their days (and often their nights as well) serving the great machine? In a bomb-proof basement officers of the WAAF are decoding secret messages, telegraphed or radioed from all parts of the world; elsewhere, Air Force officers are engaged in perfecting arrangements for cooperating with the Royal Navy in the protection of convoys; others are calculating the number of spare parts to be sent with a consignment of aircraft to the Russian front; in another room you may find a civil engineer poring over the plans for a projected oil storage; elsewhere, a civil servant will be negotiating the price of a large supply of material and a big deal will be put through. There is almost no limit to the diversity of jobs which are being done in the Air Ministry and people of all walks of life jostle each other in its corridors: cabinet ministers, stenographers, journalists, air marshals, engineers, administrators, aviators and technicians.

They are all actuated by a spirit of vital urgency. They know that they must put every ounce of effort into their job to hasten the day of victory. But they are also imbued with a sense of humility; for where their labours end the work of the RAF begins, and they know that however much they toil they would achieve nothing were it not for the skill and valour of the officers and men of the RAF engaged in writing victory in the skies. One and all, they are inspired and sustained by the knowledge that they are of service to the brave youth who fly and fight and die that freedom may live.


The Governing Body of the Royal Air Force

Sir Archibald Sinclair
The Rt Hon Sir Archibald Sinclair, Bt, KT, CMG, MP, Secretary of State for Air, President of the Air Council. He is 52, joined the Army in 1910, entered politics after the last war, has had a brilliant career in Parliament.

Capt Harold H Balfour
Capt the Rt Hon Harold Harrington Balfour, MC, MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Air (House of Commons). Vice-President of the Air Council. He is 45, was in the RFC in 1918, is still a f1yer.

Lord Sherwood
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Air (House of Lords). Lord Sherwood is 44. As Sq Ldr Sir Hugh Seely he commanded an RAF squadron which flew in France and the Battle of Britain. He entered politics in 1923, now is a baron.

Sir Charles F A Portal
Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles F A Portal, GCB, DSO and Bar, MC, Chief of the Air Staff, is 49. flew in the last war. Once during a flight he shot at the German ace Immelman with a rifle, hitting his plane.

Air Marshal Philip Babington
Air Marshal Philip Babington, CB, MC, AFC, is 48 and, during the last war served in the infantry before transferring to the RFC. He was awarded the MC for distinguished service in the field, has been in the RAF ever since.

Sir Christopher Courtney
Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Lloyd Courtney, KCB, CE, DSO, Air Member for Supply and Organisation, is 52 and has held commissions in all three fighting services. He has served extensively in India and Middle East.

Air Marshal A G R Garrod
Air Marshal Alfred Guy Roland Garrod, CB, OBE, MC, DFC, is 51 and another officer who entered the RFC during the last war. He has served in the Middle East and, in 1940. was appointed Air Member for Training.

Sir Wilfrid Freeman
Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfrid Rhodes Freeman, KCB, DSO, MC, Vice-Chief of the Air Staff, is 52. In 1936 he was appointed to the Air Council as Air Member for Research and Development. He, too, was in the RFC in 1918.

Sir Harold Howitt
Sir Harold Gibson Howitt, DSO, MC, FCA, is 56. At the outbreak of the present war he was appointed an additional Member of the Air Council to advise on financial matters. He is a veteran of the last war.

Sir Henry Tizard
Sir Henry Thomas Tizard, KCB, AFC, FRS, is 57 and served as a pilot in the last war. Assistant Controller of Air Research in 1918; 1927-29 Permanent Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Air Marshal F J Linnell
Air Marshal Francis John Linnell, CB, OBE, is 50 and Controller of Research and Development in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Appreciation from the Air Council says he has "contributed largely to efficiency of RAF wireless."

Sir Arthur Street
Sir Arthur Street, KCB, KBE, CMG, CIE, MC, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Air, had a distinguished career in Civil Service before being appointed to his present post. He was in an infantry regiment in the last war.


This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "special Royal Air Force issue" of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 43-45.
The original article includes the organizational chart, above, and small portraits of each of the members of the Governing Body.
Photos from the RAF.
Note: FCA seems to be Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales; FRS is Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. —JLM