Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Lloyd Courtney, KCB. CBE, DSO, Air Member of the Air Council for Supply and Organisation since January, 1940, has held the posts of Deputy Director of Operations and Intelligence at the Air Ministry. and Director of Training. In 1912 he joined the Royal Naval Air Service and since has received commissions in all three fighting services. He was awarded the DSO in 1917, for services as Wing Commander of Dunkirk. His Royal Air Force service includes periods of duty in India and Iraq. In 1938-39. Sir Christopher was a member of the Chatfield Expert Committee on the Defence of India.
The Royal Air Force organised as a separate service, equal in status to the Royal Navy and the Army.
There has been much discussion, both in Britain and in America, whether the aircraft possessed by a nation should be organised in this way or, alternatively, whether they should be used as components of the Army and Navy respectively. It is not the purpose of this article to enter into any controversy. It is for each country to decide for itself how best to organise and employ its resources of aircraft. All that is attempted here is an entirely factual statement of how we in Britain organise and employ our aircraft in order to meet the conditions and tasks with which we are confronted. Our island situation, our world wide commitments, our proximity to the European continent all these conditions create problems peculiar to ourselves.
Although the RAF is a separate service, it would be a great error to describe it as an independent service. None of the three branches of the armed forces, the Army, Navy and Air Force, can be independent of each other. They are rather interdependent forces. It would be disastrous if any one of them attempted to wage war on its own. Their task is rather to wage a joint and, so to speak, three dimensional war; or rather perhaps to wage one war simultaneously in the three spheres of land, water and air. It is seldom realized that it is precisely because we are so profoundly convinced of its interdependence with the Navy and Army that we consider it indispensable to maintain the cohesion and unity of the Air Force. We are convinced of the necessity for the three services to throw their combined weights into joint operations. And it is only a centralized Air Force which can use its whole strength in combined strategical employment with the Army or Navy, or both, in successive campaigns or operations.
The technical consideration which lies behind this cardinal fact of modern strategy is this. The main mass of our operational aircraft must consist of fighters and bombers which can be used successively for many different purposes. This versatility and flexibility is the supreme characteristic and necessity of the air arm.
Let us consider the bombers. The uses to which a force of bombers can be put are various. It can be used, for example, to attack by land or sea the communications of an enemy force engaged with our own land forces. We use our bombers for this purpose when we attack the lines of communication of Rommel's forces in Africa. But we also use our bombers to attack the German productive system in the cities of Germany itself.
Yet during the very weeks when we were conducting heavy raids on Germany, identically the same bomber force was switched for two nights to a purely Naval target. They attacked the German naval concentration, including the battleship Tirpitz, at Trondheim. These same bombers could have been, and some of them were, over Rostock attacking the Heinkel works on one night of the week, over Trondheim another night; and by the end of the week were attacking other targets in Germany like Kiel or Cologne. Is it not clear that if, say, a third of our bombing force were permanently attached to the Navy, a third to the Army and a third reserved for the bombing of German targets, an enormous waste of effort would result?
But there is an even more basic principle involved. The preliminary and continuing necessity in every air operation is to gain and maintain air superiority. This can only be done by the destruction or neutralization of enemy forces, either in the air or on the ground. When once that air superiority has been won, and so long as it is maintained, aircraft of many kinds can be used to attack the enemy's ground forces, his lines of communication and his Naval units and thus give decisive help to the Army and Navy. If, on the other hand, an attempt is made to divert too many aircraft to these specialized tasks to the detriment of the effort required to gain and maintain air superiority, then air support cannot be given because the supporting aircraft are prevented from operating and are shot down. Specialized Army or Navy cooperation aircraft are not well suited to engage in the struggle for air superiority and need bomber support and fighter cover just as much as any other land or sea forces engaged with the enemy.
This is one of the lessons of the Battle of Britain, when the German air force strove in vain to gain this indispensable air superiority over these islands. Because the German air force never gained it, the formidable military undertaking of an opposed landing on our shores across the English Channel (the first obstacle which held up the German panzers) could not be launched; and, it is not too much to say, the world was saved. On the other hand once air superiority has been won many types of aircraft can be used for a number of purposes. An example is afforded by our Bristol Beaufighter. Originally designed and extensively used as a long range fighter especially for operation over the sea, the Beaufighter came to play a central part as a night fighter in the defence of our cities against the German raider. And finally, in Libya, once the indispensable prerequisite of air superiority had been won Naval type Beaufighters, originally sent from Coastal Command for Naval cooperation, were used with great effect (they have a heavy armament of both cannon and machine guns) for the ground strafing of enemy troops and transport. They could not have been used in this way had the main force of short-range enemy fighters remained effective.
But, it may well be asked, are there no types of aircraft so specialized that they can perform one, and only one, specific task? Yes, there are such completely specialized aircraft and we have made provision for them in our system of organisation. While the main force of bombers and fighters is capable of undertaking many functions and can be turned at will from one task to another, yet we have various types of aircraft which can be used only in one particular way; and these aircraft are organised accordingly.
An example of such specialized aircraft are those which, hitherto, have operated from aircraft carriers. These are generally of special design to enable them to alight on the limited space available. This fact has been recognized, and these aircraft are flown and manned by members of the Naval air service who now are officers and men of the Royal Navy, not of the RAF. Thus the British Navy has its own force of aircraft which is integrally a part of itself and which is used in Naval operations. It is interesting to note, however, that with the progress of design these naval types of aircraft are tending to become variations of the standard land-based designs.
Land-based aircraft, however, take a great and ever increasing part in air operations over the sea. In our conditions they are highly important for the hunting and destruction of enemy submarines. We have therefore developed a large force of these aircraft organised in the Coastal Command of the RAF. An increasing number of torpedo-carrying aircraft for use against enemy war and supply ships is also operating as part of this force. As these Coastal Command aircraft are either based on land, or are shore-based flying boats, they are manned and flown by members of the RAF. They are, however, under the "operational control" of the Admiralty. The Admiralty, that is to say, states its strategic plan and requirements to the commander-in-chief, Coastal Command (an RAF officer) who operates his aircraft accordingly.
Again there are certain types of aircraft which are specialized for work with the Army. These aircraft are also manned and flown by members of the RAF, but are organised in another command the Army Cooperation Command.
The existence of these specialized sections of the RAF must not, however, lead anyone to suppose that the cooperation of the RAF with the Army and Navy is limited to the aircraft in Army Co-operation and Coastal Commands respectively, because all the fighter and bomber forces of the RAF are available and would be switched to operate in aid of either the Army or Navy or both, when the strategic plan of the higher command requires.
Our bomber force assists the Navy by attacking a special Naval target such as submarine building yard or warship in harbour; or by laying mines in enemy waters. Fighters assist the Navy when they attack a convoy of coasting steamers trying to make their way down the Channel. Or they may patrol over our coastal convoys. Bombers assist the Army when they destroy a factory like the Renault factory in Paris which was turning out tanks and motor vehicles in great quantities for the German Armies.
Air forces cooperate from their base at Malta when they sink a ship conveying tanks or other munitions to General Rommel's army in Libya. They were cooperating in this way for several months before the offensive by the land forces was opened last November.
Bombers and fighters cooperate also when the Navy or Army are themselves engaged in action with the enemy. Our bomber and fighter forces will be employed to the fullest possible extent in furthering Naval or military plans by attacking these targets the destruction of which will best assist the combined plan, and in gaining and maintaining air superiority to free our own aircraft to act in close support and to prevent interference with our service forces by the aircraft of the enemy.
Central control is, therefore, essential if the most effective help is to be given, the maximum concentration of air power is to be obtained and the maximum support afforded to the other services.
Operating in separate and distinct sections they would be more liable to defeat in detail by the enemy air force which is itself under central control.
These then are the reasons, as we see them, for the existence of the RAF in its present form. The Air Ministry, which is one of our major Government departments, analogous to the United States War or Navy Departments, is the headquarters of the RAF. At its head is a secretary of state, The Rt Hon Sir Archibald Sinclair, Bart, KT, CMG, MP. He presides over the Air Council consisting of 12 members, some of whom are civilians, some serving officers. This is, as it were, the cabinet of the Air Force, and runs the service as a whole. The senior service member of the Air Council holds the post of Chief of the Air Staff. This post today is occupied by Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, GCB, DSO, MC. It is through him, a chief of the air staff, that the RAF is represented in the British higher command. For he is a member of the chief of staffs committee, which includes the chief of the Imperial general staff, representing the Army, and the First Sea Lord, representing the Royal Navy. This chief of staffs committee advises the prime minister and minister of defence, who is chairman of the defence committee of the cabinet.
I must now attempt, very briefly, to tell you something of the way in which the RAF is itself organised as a fighting force. It is divided into a series of commands. These commands are organised, partly on a functional, partly on a geographical basis. Bomber Command consists of the main force of bomber aircraft, and Fighter Command consists of the main force of fighter aircraft. Coastal Command and Army Cooperation Command I have already mentioned. In addition there are the vitally important Maintenance Command, the two Training Commands (Flying Training and Technical Training Commands), Balloon Command and Ferry Command. Maintenance Command is one of the largest in the entire Air Force. It has been described as "the wholesaler and retailer for the operational commands." It receives the aircraft, and what is almost more important, the more than 750,000 separate parts of aircraft and items of stores, which the RAF needs. It holds them in gigantic depots and distributes them when they are wanted. The Training Commands are also, as you can imagine, vast organisations, the function of which is to provide a never-ceasing and ever-broadening flow of pilots, air gunners, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators, skilled fitters and riggers and men of many other trades to the RAF. Balloon Command operates the extensive balloon barrage which protects all our principal cities from low-level attack. Ferry Command is responsible for the delivery of American aircraft across the Atlantic.
The symmetry of this system of functional commands has had, however, to be modified by the fact that the RAF must operate in many different parts of the world remote from these islands. Therefore three separate commands, those of the Middle East, India and West Africa are organised on a geographical basis. Each of these commands operates both bomber and fighter and other types of aircraft. The Middle East Command is already a very formidable force on its own, bigger than the entire RAF at the beginning of the war. These commands have problems of their own of great complexity. You can easily imagine what it must be to maintain and operate aircraft from those distant bases, in countries which lack almost all productive industry. Almost every item of stores has to be brought to them after long and perilous sea or air passage.
The next unit below the command is the group. Most commands are organised in a number of groups which are generally disposed geographically. All the bomber stations in a particular part of the country, for example, are organised in a group. They are generally commanded by an air vice-marshal. The group may contain either a number of stations or a number of wings. A typical station in Bomber Command for instance consists of a main aerodrome and generally one satellite aerodrome under the command of a group captain. There may be two or three squadrons operating under the station commander.
Some half a dozen or more of these stations are contained in each group. If the stations were built before the war they have first rate buildings messes for the aircrews, barracks for the airmen, recreation rooms and the like. If they have been built since the war their occupants have naturally to make do with something much simpler and great regard is paid to dispersal and concealment.
Where squadrons operate individually and moves are frequent as, for example, with an Army in the field, it is found more convenient to adopt the organisation of a separate wing headquarters controlling a number of squadrons on separate landing fields.
It is, however, in the squadron that we find the real basic unit of the RAF. The squadron consists of a little more or a little less than a score of aircraft, according to type. This is the unit, analogous perhaps to the battalion or battery in the Army, or the ship in the Navy, around which the loyalties and the healthy rivalries of the aircrews centre. It is in the squadrons, moreover, that there arises that immense scope for leadership, that need of the power to inspire and to weld men together, upon which so much depends in any armed force. Operational squadrons have their ups and downs; they are sometimes shattered by grievous losses but are rallied by successful leaders or they lose trusted commanders who have to be replaced by new men. These squadron leaders are for the most part very young; in their early 20s in many cases, and on them falls tremendous responsibility. They have not only to lead their pilots and aircrews in flight and combat, but also to command their 200 or 300 men of the aircraft maintenance and ground staffs. On the tireless and often very heavy work of these mechanics depends the whole efficiency of the squadron. A squadron may have 20 splendid aircraft, but if its "serviceability" as it is called, is low, only a small proportion will be able to take the air. It is only by developing the most highly skilled and self-sacrificing mechanics directed by highly effective non-commissioned officers that an Air Force can keep going.
Here then, in the very broadest outline, is an account of the organisation of the RAF. You will realize that this now vast and mighty force is incomparably more complex than I have been able to suggest in this article. But it is perhaps best that you should be given the broadest possible picture in order that you may grasp the salient points. Finally, let me repeat that we are under no illusion that the organisation of the RAF is perfect. We do not suppose that we have solved every problem. New and extremely exacting tasks are constantly facing the RAF. We are constantly endeavoring to learn from experience; to adopt what have proved effective practices from our allies and even, if need be, from our enemies! Nevertheless we firmly believe that the present basis of the RAF as a centralized organisation is indispensable to the existence of Great Britain as an independent nation. Two years ago that force stood between the British people and certain enslavement to the Nazis. Now the RAF is ceaselessly attacking, heavily engaged with formidable enemies on a dozen fronts. Its fighters range the coasts of occupied France; its bombers pound the cities of Germany; in the Middle East it has made Malta a graveyard of German and Italian aircraft. It has not escaped without suffering heavy losses. It has further ordeals before it, but now it has been joined by powerful allies. The Soviet Air Force and the United States Army Air Force and Naval Air Service are gathering in the east and in the west. The men of the RAF, and the women of the WAAF will go forward to victory in company with the airmen and airwomen of the United Nations.
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 41-42, 252, 254.
The original article includes a thumbnail photo of the author andd an Air Council organizational chart.