Book Review – The Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, 1939-1941: Norway, the Mediterranean and the Bismarck

Ben Jones (ed.), The Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, 1939-1941: Norway, the Mediterranean and the Bismarck. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012. Notes. Index. Illustrations. Hbk. 593pp. £70.

Reviewed by Richard Hammond, University of Wolverhampton

Founded in 1893, The Navy Records Society (NRS) was ‘established for the purpose of printing unpublished manuscripts and rare works of naval interest’. This is their one-hundred and fifty-ninth volume that consists of a reproduced collection of documents relating to the history of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) in the early phase of the Second World War. It is the first of three projected volumes on the FAA during the war, with a follow-up volume handling the ‘period of transition’ in 1942-43 due to appear in the near future. This volume, along with the two to come, is suitably edited by Ben Jones who is a lecturer at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell and an expert in the history of all aspects of British naval aviation; especially operations and logistics.[1]

The book opens with a succinct general introduction to the volume by Jones (pp. xxiii – xxix). This section briefly outlines the difficulties faced by British naval aviation in the interwar years, with questions over disputed control, sparse funding and the competing visions of the Admiralty and Air Ministry for aviation. It goes on to list the outcomes of these problems, such as the Royal Navy falling behind countries such as Japan and the USA in aircraft carrier development and naval aircraft design and in tactical development. While this only briefly mentions these important issues, this subject matter is likely something that readers of such a specialised collection of documents are already very familiar with, it having been covered extensively elsewhere.[2] However, it does serve as an appropriate introduction to the volume as a whole and outlines how it is structured overall and the style conventions for the original documents. The volume is split into three main sections, with the first covering the state of the FAA just prior to and at the start of the war in 1939 and its place within British policy and planning. Each of the three sections contains documents on policy and planning and documents relating to operations. Each section is prefaced by a brief framing introduction to the section written by Jones.

As might be expected, the first section largely consists of documents concerning plans for the use of the FAA and those decrying the lack of ships, aircraft, personnel, bases and resources available for it (see for instance the documents on pp. 10-11, 11-12, 17-23, 35-38). Some documents of particular interest here might be the minute by the Director of the Naval Air Division from May 1939. This gives a comprehensive tabular projection of the distribution of carrier, battleship and cruiser forces in the event of peace, an ‘Axis War’ (which presumably means limited to European and Atlantic waters) or a ‘Far Eastern War’ (pp. 8-9, see also Fifth Sea Lord’s memorandum for FAA overseas requirements, p. 26). This gives a unique insight into how far ahead the Royal Navy was planning for their aerial forces in the immediate lead-up to war, having only just regained control of them. There are also fascinating insights into expected wastage rates of FAA aircraft in a major war; generally 20% for fighters and Torpedo/Spotter/Reconnaissance (TSR) types, which is highly optimistic in comparison with the much higher projected ratios given by the RAF for their fighters, bombers and torpedo bombers – ranging from 45% to 90% (pp. 27-29). Some of these RAF figures were ultimately revised downwards by the Cabinet however, and it is unclear if they had been made deliberately high in an effort to claim ever-greater proportions of aircraft construction.

As the first section deals with the events of 1939, very few documents present concern operations of the FAA. There is however, the report of the Board of Enquiry into the loss of the carrier HMS Courageous to U29, just 14 days into the war, and other correspondence relating to its loss. This demonstrates some naiveté in the conduct of the officers and crew at such an early stage of hostilities – no lookouts were posted on the carrier itself, no aircraft escort was present, and there was a failure to close some watertight doors (pp. 43, 47). The board for the conduct of crew in aircraft carriers gave no fewer than 27 recommendations as the Royal Navy was getting to grips with the use of this new type of vessel in wartime.

The second section focuses on 1940, with the documents on policy and planning once again demonstrating the prime place of the discussion of the allocation of resources, and particularly that over the question of aircraft production. Documents abound on these issues, with the requirement for higher performance fighters very prevalent (pp.85-88). One intense area of debate came after the Cabinet gave absolute priority to the RAF in terms of aircraft production for five types of aircraft in May. This came at the expense of production of some other types of RAF aircraft but also of those for the FAA. A series of correspondence between the Director of Air Materiel, the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Minister of Aircraft production displays the efforts to accord the latest FAA fighter aircraft (the Fairey Fulmar) and also TSR aircraft (Fairey Swordfish and Albacore), the same or similar priority (pp. 115-118). These documents highlight another, less well-known aspect of inter-service rivalry, which raged for several months before being largely resolved in an agreement that September (pp. 227-8).

There are other documents of note though, such as the proposal by then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, for the creation of ‘6, 7 or 8 shore-based naval squadrons’, with the numbers of aircraft and personnel being met by reductions from the carrier complements if necessary (pp. 71-72). This suggestion had been made with a view to adding to the air defence of Great Britain and particularly of the home fleet in port. While it appeared to gather little momentum at the time, it was not to be long before the FAA was operating shore-based squadrons with success both in the Home and in Mediterranean theatres.

The operational documents in this section are split mainly between the Norwegian campaign and events in the Mediterranean. The former was a very mixed affair for the FAA, being the first major operation for British aircraft carriers and variously involving three of them, with reports detailing the operations of each. The loss of HMS Glorious demonstrated that some of the lessons of the loss of Courageous had yet to be learnt, particularly regarding air cover (p. 170). However, FAA Skua dive bombers operating from British shore bases were also responsible for the sinking of the KMS Königsberg, the first major warship sunk by air power in the war. The report notes that this attack was carried out ‘under exceptionally favourable conditions’ with complete surprise having been achieved (pp. 93-95). The importance of surprise to success for such low-performance aircraft was reinforced by the abject failure of a similar raid by aircraft from HMS Ark Royal on warships at Trondheim.

Operations in the Mediterranean in this period are best known through the famous attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto. Considered the crowning achievement of the FAA, the documents relating to this attack are present, but have already seen exposure elsewhere.[3] There also reports regarding the less effective role of the FAA in the first two engagements between the British and Italian fleets, and of FAA strikes on Italian airfields, warships and merchant vessels. The latter includes the impressive record of a strike on a convoy by aircraft from HMS Illustrious where seven out of nine torpedoes fired registered hits (pp.295-296).

The final section of the collection is dedicated to the events of 1941. The policy and planning documents are once again focused primarily on aircraft production and the need for high-performance fighters. The Fairey Fulmar had proven inadequate, while the conversion of RAF types to maritime tasks was also quite unsuccessful. Admiral James Somerville vividly described the Sea Hurricane as an ‘embarrassment’ when operating in escort roles, while doubts were also expressed about the suitability of converted Spitfires (pp. 470, 520). With the failure of British to design a build a suitable aircraft, the solution came in the form of ordering large numbers of American types, which were to take time to appear, but ultimately eased the situation. There will likely be much material on the performance of these types in the next volume. There are also planning documents in this section regarding carrier-building programmes, with a particular emphasis on ordering greater numbers of light and auxiliary carriers, and on the need for large quantities of carriers and high quality aircraft in the event of war with Japan. This last point is summarised in the stark comments of the Fifth Sea Lord: ‘If we do not provide out fleet with ample aircraft for both offense and defence, we are liable to get a caning!’ (p. 541).

There are larger numbers of operational records in this section, especially in light of intensifying war in the Mediterranean. Documents cover the role of the FAA in the Royal Navy’s victory at the Battle of Cape Matapan, the use of carriers in ferrying fighters to Malta, the bombing of Axis airfields, spotting for the fleet bombardment of Tripoli and the brutal effects of the lack of air support during the evacuation of Crete, among others. Outside of the Mediterranean, there are documents on FAA shipping strikes off Norway, trade defence roles in the Atlantic and the use and loss of HMS Audacity – first of the auxiliary carriers, and of course the crucial role played by the FAA in the trapping and sinking of the KMS Bismarck. One of the last documents in the collections is the notes of the Rear Admiral, Naval Air Stations, on the FAA operations of 1939-1941 and lessons to be drawn from them (pp. 515-519). This is a fascinating insight into where both shortfalls and successes of the first years of the war were perceived, in such a formative period for British naval aviation.

This collection has been edited to the high standard that is expected of NRS volumes. It is comprehensive, logically ordered, and with all areas of uncertainty from the original documents clarified by the editor. Like all collections of documents, it is designed for a specialist, academic audience, which it will assist greatly. The price is subsequently high, to a level that might well be prohibitive for some.[4] However, for those working on this area, or those highly interested in the history of British naval aviation, this is a worthy addition. I hope that the following two volumes meet the same standard.

Citation: Richard Hammond, ‘Review of Ben Jones (ed.), The Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War, 1939-1941: Norway, the Mediterranean and the Bismarck’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 28 June 2013

A copy of the review can be downloaded here.


[1] See his following publications; Ben Jones, A History of the Royal Navy: Air Power and British Naval Aviation (London: I.B. Tauris, forthcoming (2015)); Jones, ‘The Fleet Air Arm and the Struggle for the Mediterranean, 1940-1944’ in Tim Benbow (ed.), British Naval Aviation: The First 100 Years (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), pp. 79-98.

[2] As a starting point, see; Geoffrey Till, Air Power and the Royal Navy, 1914-1945: A Historical Study (London: Jane’s, 1979); Christina Goulter, A Forgotten Offensive: Royal Air Force Coastal Command’s Anti-Shipping Campaign, 1940-1945 (London: Frank Cass, 1995), pp. 1-72; John Buckley, The RAF and Trade Defence: Constant Endeavour (Keele: Keele University Press, 1995).

[3] See; Michael Simpson (ed), The Cunningham Papers, Volume I: The Mediterranean Fleet, 1939-1942 (Farnham: Ashgate, 1999).

[4] Alternatively, membership of the NRS includes a free copy of all their publications within the fee.

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