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How the slaughter of 18 school children in a German raid led to the birth of the RAF 100 years ago

The order to ‘Scramble!’ had finally come and the ever-eager Squadron Leader Douglas Bader clenched his pipe between his teeth and led his team of Spitfires and Hurricanes in a fast climb into the sky over southern England.

It was September 1940, the height of the Battle of Britain. In the distance, a cluster of black dots stained the sky.

A cry went up over the radio: ‘Bandits, 10 o’clock!’ There were 70 of them, Dornier bombers and their fighter plane escorts. Bader closed fast, ignoring streams of tracer streaking at him from their rear gunners.

A Messerschmitt floated into his sights. He gave a quick burst of fire and felt a moment of triumph as he saw it fall, smoke pouring from its tail.

Then there was a horrible, jarring shock as German cannon shells slammed into his own plane.

No19 Fighter Squadron, based at Duxford, Cambs., flying their two blade propeller Supermarine Spitfire aircraft in formation in the year of the outbreak of the Second World War

Instinctively, he banked hard left as his cockpit filled with smoke. He was going down in flames.

Gripped by fear, he pulled back the hood to bale out — until the slipstream cleared the smoke and he realised the fire had miraculously gone out. He was all right after all.

Using all his strength, he eased the Hurricane out of its screaming dive and gave chase to another Messerschmitt, firing three sharp bursts.

It veered groundward and seconds later exploded. But Bader was in real trouble by now too, his plane crabbing awkwardly, left wing dropping, holes in the cockpit and the side.

His flying-suit was gashed across the right hip. Somehow he nursed the Hurricane back to base, landed, taxied to the maintenance hangar and climbed out, barking: ‘I want this aircraft ready again in half an hour!’

Here was the raw, do-or-die courage, the refusal to be beaten, that came to typify Britain’s Royal Air Force — which is about to celebrate 100 years since it was founded on April 1, 1918.

It was a difficult birth. Conceived in panic against the wishes of the other armed forces, the RAF was sniped at from all sides and only just managed to survive as an independent organisation. It was a good job it did.

It nurtured the likes of the indomitable Bader (who’d lost both his legs in a pre-war crash when showing off his aerobatic skills), without whom the Battle of Britain, its finest hour, would not have been won. It has proved its worth ever since.

Which is why it’s as a surprise to learn in a new book by historian Richard Overy that getting the RAF off the ground took herculean effort — and very nearly didn’t happen.

Britain had war planes in service ever since the start of World War I, with their importance in battle growing despite the fact that flying then was still rudimentary and dangerous.

Flimsy planes made of wood and fabric and held together with wire were liable to break up or crash.

No19 Fighter Squadron at the outbreak of the second world war

No19 Fighter Squadron at the outbreak of the second world war

Pilots took to the air in combat after just a dozen hours training, wrapped up in layers of clothing and multiple balaclavas to keep out the cold in the open cockpits. There were no parachutes.

Each squadron was umbilically attached to one or other of the existing armed forces — the Army and the Royal Navy — whom they supported and from whom they took their orders.

The army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) patrolled the skies above the trenches in France; the job of the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) was to protect ships. And the generals and admirals jealously guarded their fiefdoms, determined to keep the ambitious aviators and their flying machines in their place: new boys who were subordinates and should do as they were told.

Wars were won on land and sea, was the prevailing doctrine, not in the air. Planes simply provided protection, reconnaissance and back-up. But that arrogance and complacency on the part of the service chiefs came up against harsh reality when Britain itself came under attack from the air.

In 1915 and 1916, bombing raids from Zeppelin airships killed several hundred civilians in various parts of the country. But what really spread panic among the British was when a squadron of German Gotha bombers attacked in broad daylight on June 13, 1917.

They flew unchallenged above the capital at an altitude beyond the range of anti-aircraft guns.

The Avro Lancaster bomber, of the Royal Air Forces Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

The Avro Lancaster bomber, of the Royal Air Forces Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

Hundreds of civilians were killed or wounded and a primary school in Poplar, in the East End of London, was hit by a stray bomb intended for the nearby docks.

It scythed down through the three-storey building and obliterated an infants class of four to six-year-olds on the ground floor, killing all 18 of them.

The school caretaker carried out the body of his own son. A pupil who survived recalled the headmaster calling the register the next day and weeping every time there was no answer to a name.

The little ones’ funeral was deeply emotional, with 15 of the victims buried in a mass grave.

Rumour had it that the last coffin in the procession to the cemetery contained body parts that could not be identified.

Six hundred wreaths were laid and a message of condolence from the King was read out.

After the mourning came rage, with a public outcry for something to be done.

Rioters and looters took out their anger and despair on foreign-owned premises. Egged on by an affronted Press, the public demanded air defences against the enemy and reprisals against German cities — which, with other priorities, neither the RFC nor the RNAS could supply.

RAF Supermarine Spitfire II banks round to show classic Spitfire wing shape

RAF Supermarine Spitfire II banks round to show classic Spitfire wing shape

The Prime Minister, wily David Lloyd George, saw a political disaster in the making. Public morale was at rock bottom already after three years of a stalemate war. He feared a backlash.

Famed for his tap-dancing expediency, he headed off the growing criticism by setting up a special crisis committee, which in turn proposed the formation of an independent Air Ministry.

Separate from the army and navy, it would coordinate not only the country’s response to aerial attack but also handle all matters of war in the air. The generals and admirals were outraged at the very idea. They huffed and puffed, argued and stalled.

The Hurricane was built in 1944 and is believed to be the last Hurricane to enter service with the RAF. Both aircraft are still flying with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

The Hurricane was built in 1944 and is believed to be the last Hurricane to enter service with the RAF. Both aircraft are still flying with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

But then the need for action was reinforced by more German air raids in late September, more Gothas coming in under a harvest moon and sending Londoners into total panic.

Only a handful of bombers actually made it to the capital, but rumour said 4,000 were on the way, and hundreds of thousands of civilians — carrying babies, bedding and pet canaries in cages — formed queues outside Tube stations to seek shelter underground. Output came to a halt in factories when panicked staff, worried about their safety, failed to turn up for work.

Production of weapons slumped at the Woolwich Arsenal.

The desperate authorities shoved aside any bickering about the need for an Air Ministry, and Parliament passed an act authorising the establishment of the Royal Air Force.

Initially, it would be a temporary measure, for just four years.

That this was essentially a political rather than a military decision was underlined when Lloyd George chose the Fleet Street Press baron Lord Rothermere — owner (alongside his brother, Lord Northcliffe) of Associated Newspapers (which, then and now, included the Daily Mail) — to head the new Air Ministry.

A Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb, RF-D, flown by pilot Jan Zumbach (1915 - 1986) of the 303 Kosciuszko Polish Fighter Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF), World War II, circa 1943

A Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vb, RF-D, flown by pilot Jan Zumbach (1915 – 1986) of the 303 Kosciuszko Polish Fighter Squadron of the Royal Air Force (RAF), World War II, circa 1943

It was an unlikely appointment. Rothermere had a good track record in business but, writes Overy, ‘had little political experience and only a layman’s grasp of the way air power had developed over the course of the war.’

Overy surmises that the Prime Minister’s motivation for offering him the position was simply to get him on board and try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to stifle criticism from his papers.

The new ministry — formally known as the Air Board — had a rocky start. It was not just that the Admiralty was doing its best to torpedo every initiative by insisting on keeping control over naval aircraft and personnel.

There was also disagreement among the top brass, with Rothermere at loggerheads with Sir Hugh Trenchard, previously commander of the RFC, who had been appointed Chief of the Air Staff but wasn’t himself convinced that a separate air force was necessary or desirable.

Biggin Hill: Pilots have a last look at their maps before taking off at Biggin Hill on RAF exercises

Biggin Hill: Pilots have a last look at their maps before taking off at Biggin Hill on RAF exercises

The fiery Trenchard griped constantly about taking direction from a civilian. Rothermere complained that his Chief of Staff was not just ‘perfectly impossible’ to work with but also failing to do his job of coming up with a distinctive, long-term strategy for the new force. Nonetheless, amid the mess, the wrangling and the uncertainty, the RAF was born.

It officially came into being on April 1, 1918 — appropriately, some smirked, All Fools’ Day.

There were no fanfares or ceremonies. The only obvious immediate change was a new rubber stamp with ‘Royal Air Force’ obliterating ‘Royal Flying Corps’ on documents. Otherwise, its 25,000 officers and 140,000 men, most technicians, mechanics or drivers, carried on as before, with the 64 former naval squadrons continuing to support the navy and the 97 former RFC units with the army.

At the top, the rows went on until, after just weeks in the job, Trenchard resigned, followed later by Rothermere.

Their successors — the industrialist Sir William Weir as President of the Air Board and Frederick Sykes as Chief of Staff — looked to give the new force a distinct identity.

Sykes set about strengthening the air defences around London and planning the strategic bombing of industrial and civilian targets in Germany, while arguing strongly that air power was the future face of war.

The air force, he contended, would be the nation’s — and the empire’s — first line of defence, not the army or the navy.

A distinctive RAF uniform was designed, to replace the khaki of the army and deep blue of the navy. The first effort was light blue with lashings of gold braid, but was scoffed at for resembling the clothes of a cinema commissionaire. A dark grey-blue was finally settled on.

Aircraft Of The Royal Air Force, 1939-1945: Supermarine Spitfire, Spitfire Mark VB, AD233 'ZD-F' being flown by the Commanding Officer of No.222 Squadron RAF

Aircraft Of The Royal Air Force, 1939-1945: Supermarine Spitfire, Spitfire Mark VB, AD233 ‘ZD-F’ being flown by the Commanding Officer of No.222 Squadron RAF

But Sykes’s ambition for the service was cut short by the ending of the war in November 1918 — at which point all the disputes over the need for a separate RAF surfaced again.

With demobilisation, numbers shrank from 198 squadrons to just 28.

Doubts were also raised about how effective the bombing campaign in the final months of war had actually been. ‘A gigantic waste of effort and personnel’ was one insider’s damning verdict.

The mood in Whitehall was increasingly in favour of breaking up the RAF and sending its constituent parts back to the army and the navy as ancillary units. Lloyd George even came close to writing it off as a wartime improvisation. It was Winston Churchill who came to the rescue when, at the beginning of 1919, he was appointed Secretary of State for War, with the addition of the Air Ministry as part of his brief.

At first he sat on the fence, leaving the RAF in what Overy describes as ‘limbo’ — ‘neither elevated to a secure future nor yet dismantled as a redundant relic of the recent conflict’.

Trenchard was now back as Chief of Staff and — contrary to the reluctance displayed two years earlier — a fervent advocate of RAF independence.

When he got wind that Churchill might be leaning towards dismantling the service, he stormed into his office and engaged in a fierce shouting match with his boss. A separate air force was essential, he now argued forcibly, to ‘encourage and develop the Air spirit, like the Naval spirit, and to make it a force that will profoundly influence the strategy of the future’.

A reconstruction of a Spitfire scramble during the Battle of Britain open day celebrations at Biggin Hill in Kent pn Sunday 17 September 2000

A reconstruction of a Spitfire scramble during the Battle of Britain open day celebrations at Biggin Hill in Kent pn Sunday 17 September 2000

Churchill wavered but eventually came down on Trenchard’s side. He, too, could see where the future lay. The RAF as an independent force was saved.

Henceforth it would be a permanent fixture in Britain’s military set-up. Not that everybody considered the issue settled. ‘A wicked waste of money,’ declared Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson. ‘The sooner the air force crashes the better.’ Three years later Admiral David Beatty was still demanding that the navy should get back control of its planes and pilots.

But the RAF flew on regardless, dodging the brickbats, growing in strength and proving its worth in the Second World War.

When that great conflict began, this country’s one military element that was technically up to date and well prepared was the fighter defence of the British Isles.

The fears of enemy bombing in 1917 that had prompted the call for a separate RAF in the first place came full circle in 1940.

As Prime Minister, Churchill reaped the rewards of his foresight in supporting the fledgling RAF all those years earlier.

‘For good or ill,’ he wrote later, ‘air mastery is today the supreme expression of military power. And fleets and armies, however necessary, must accept a subordinate rank.’

As he chalked up another ‘kill’ over Kent and sent Hitler’s Luftwaffe packing, Douglas Bader would most surely have agreed. 

  • THE Birth of the RAF, 1918: The World’s First Air Force by Richard Overy is published by Allen Lane at £14.99. To order a copy for £11.24 (offer valid to 7/4/18), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15.

 



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