Book Review – British Naval Aviation: The First 100 Years

Tim Benbow (ed.), British Naval Aviation: The First 100 Years. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. Notes. Index. Hbk. pp. 235. £60

Reviewed by Richard Hammond, University of Wolverhampton

british-naval-aviation-the-first-100-years

Coming not only in the wake of the 2009 centenary of British naval aviation, but also of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) with its role in the continuing debate over the question of aircraft carriers, this collection is very timely. The book appears in the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies Series that is edited by members of the Corbett Centre for Martime Policy Studies that is located within the Defence Studies Department, Kingls College London at the Joint Services Command and Staff College, Shrivenham. In the 100 years since the Admiralty ordered its first airship, British naval aviation has achieved a remarkable amount. This is especially true when considered in the context of threats from repeatedly constrained resources, inter-service rivalry and rapidly evolving political, strategic and tactical landscapes. Following a broadly chronological structure, the chapters cover the entire period from 1909 to today, and include contributions from leading figures in the historiography of British naval aviation.

The first two chapters come from Eric Grove, concerning the birth of British naval aviation and its role in the First World War respectively. Both provide comprehensive narratives of the crucial formative period for the development of maritime air power. Grove ably charts the first faltering steps of the pioneering aviators, often working privately and at their own expense in order to demonstrate the potential of air power to the armed forces. This is something they achieved through sheer persistence and not inconsiderable danger, using experimental and generally rather fragile craft that could easily be the victim of moderate strength winds. Such successes as the first ever take-off from water by Oliver Schwann in 1911 resulted in the creation of the first naval flying school in February of the following year, and the commission of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in April (pp. 11-17). According to Grove, the development of the naval wing of the RFC was hampered by technology, with aircraft lacking the range to constitute a real Fleet Air Arm (FAA). As such, on the outbreak of the Great War, the army simply had two different land-based support services, and it was here, rather than with the creation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1918, that the future, bitter inter-service rivalry over naval aviation was born.

This leads directly into Grove’s second chapter. He continues his point over the two competing yet similar air forces, noting that members of the Royal Naval Air Service identified more as ‘airmen’ than ‘seamen’ (p.27). This was strengthened over the course of the war as much of their achievements came from an army support or an independent strategic basis, such as the first strategic bombing raids and playing a pivotal role in the development of the tank. That is not to say that they did not make achievements in maritime roles, such as in the first successful aerial torpedoing of a ship in 1915 and in the defence of trade in 1917/18. For Grove, the Admiralty’s overzealous attempts to place extremely stringent controls on naval air power, denying any level of independence in their operations, ultimately helped them lose the battle for control of any air assets on the formation of the RAF. These two chapters present an excellent narrative of events from 1908-1918. They are built on memoirs of important personnel from the period and from the collection of primary sources edited by Stephen Roskill for the Navy Records Society.[1] In that sense, these two chapters are a little disappointing, as they do not bring in any new source material. We thus approach the centenary of the First World War with much potential work still to be done on this issue.

Geoffrey Till’s chapter on the competing visions of the Admiralty and Air Ministry for air power examines both the contentious interwar years and how such indecision and compromise bought about the failure of air power in the Malaya campaign on 1941-42. The analysis of the debate and rivalry in the interwar years is a succinct one, but as he freely acknowledges (p. 63), is largely a summary of what was covered in his seminal 1979 work.[2] However, his analysis of the Malayan campaign, claiming that it demonstrates that the competing visions of each service were partially correct, is more adventurous. His contention that the campaign proved the fallacy of the Air Ministry’s claims that air power could act in a ‘substitution’ role for aircraft carriers at that stage is difficult to disagree with.

Ben Jones’s chapter examines the role of the FAA in the Mediterranean during the Second World War. It demonstrates just how varied the operations they undertook were, including reconnaissance, gunnery spotting, shipping strike, anti-submarine warfare, fighter defence and army co-operation roles. Their achievements in the theatre went far beyond their most famous roles at Taranto and Matapan and exemplified just how adaptable they were. In fact Matapan was the only occasion in the theatre when they operated in the ‘find, fix and strike’ role in conjunction with the fleet that had been envisioned for them in the interwar period.[3] Their operations in the theatre thus identify the sheer adaptability of the FAA. This leads nicely into Jon Robb-Webb’s chapter on the FAA in the Pacific, 1944-45. Here they were forced, once again, to adapt to an entirely new form of warfare. His argument that the British Pacific Fleet successfully tackled a very steep learning curve in a short space of time, using resources not directly suited to the task, is a persuasive one. It should, however, be borne in mind that the contribution of the BPF to the Pacific war overall was relatively miniscule.

Tim Benbow tackles a less well-known aspect of the post-war defence debates; the ‘Radical Review’ of 1953-55. This precursor to the more famous debates of the 1960s saw the Admiralty forced to defend itself from a concerted effort by some such as Duncan Sandys to enforce a series of major cuts to the funding of the RN, in deference to the RAF. One important aspect that Benbow captures well is that this move failed due to the lack of a unified front behind it. There were, for instance, senior figures in the RAF who opposed it, in spite of the potential gains in funding they would make. Benbow’s chapter is followed by one from Ian Speller examining naval aviation in operations from Korea to the Falklands. This chapter suffers a little from being a narrative of the operations, with relatively little in the way of analysis of them. His conclusion that the importance of the role-played by naval aviation ‘should surprise no one’ (p. 175) is certainly true, if hardly groundbreaking.

Edward Hampshire’s chapter covers the cancellation of CVA-01, a much better-known event in the continuing debate over the nature of maritime air power than that examined by Benbow. He convincingly emphasises the role of personalities in the decision making process, claiming that the presence of Mountbatten greatly aided the RN’s cause in the debates. However, he was also detrimental in that once he retired; senior members of the RN were not able to emerge from his shadow, leaving the door open for Denis Healey to push forward with the cancellation of the programme. This chapter complements the more recent publication in the Ashgate series by Gjert Lage Dyndal, which tackles the debates over naval aviation and land based air power in the 1950s and 1960s more generally.[4]

This collection ends with a chapter by Lee Willett on the recent defence review and the question of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. There is a danger that this chapter, as a study of contemporary policy, might sit oddly alongside eight chapters of historical research. However, it works effectively to bring the chronological progression of the collection to the present day. Some aspects of Willett’s analysis are well trodden, such as the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ nature of the RN in the eye of the public and the longevity of aircraft carriers (pp. 211, 214). He does make an important conclusion regarding the danger of losing aircraft carrier capabilities though; stating that if Britain wishes to retain its naval pre-eminence behind the United States, then losing them is simply not an option (p. 226).

Overall, this is an excellent collection of chapters and an important contribution to the historiography. It covers the 100 years of British naval aviation fully and ably demonstrates just how much it has achieved in the face of constant adversity. It also highlights areas in the history of naval aviation that are ripe for further research. In particular, and in light of the approaching centenary, the nature and role of naval aviation prior to and during the First World War need greater attention. This can fit into the wider need for renewed study into both naval and air aspects of the war.[5]

Citation: Richard Hammond, ‘Review of Tim Benbow (ed), British Naval Aviation: The First 100 Years’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 3 May 2013

You can download a copy of the review here.


[1] S.W. Roskill (ed), Documents Relating to the Royal Naval Air Service, Volume 1: 1908-1918 (London: Navy Records Society, 1969).

[2] Geoffrey Till, Air Power and the Royal Navy, 1914-1945: A Historical Study (London: Jane’s, 1979).

[3] Ibid, pp. 137-171.

[4] Gjert Lage Dyndal, Land Based Air Power or Aircraft Carriers: A Case Study of the Debate about British Maritime Air Power in the 1960s (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).

[5] See; James Goldrick, ‘The Need for a New Naval History of the First World War’, Corbett Paper, No. 7 (November 2011). Available online at – http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/dsd/research/researchgroups/corbett/corbettpaper7.pdf.

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