The Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the Battle of the Atlantic, 1940-43

by DR TIM BENBOW

The ‘Battle of the Atlantic’ against the U-boats was the most vital campaign for Britain between mid-1940 and early 1943.  It had to be won if Britain was to remain in the war let alone shift over to the offensive.  Gaining this critical success was made more difficult by the general mismatch between resources and the vast range of demands on them, in campaigns on land, in the air and at sea all across the world.  Yet, as I argue in a recently published article entitled ‘Brothers in arms: the Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the Battle of the Atlantic, 1940-43’, this overstretch was greatly exacerbated by the avoidable misallocation of available resources in the form of very long-range (VLR) aircraft.

The most pressing need was to close the ‘mid-Atlantic air gap’, where the existing land-based aircraft of RAF Coastal Command could not reach.  The Admiralty, together with the head of Coastal Command, repeatedly argued for VLR aircraft to be allocated to the protection of shipping rather than bombing Germany, only to be rebuffed by the senior leadership of the Royal Air Force.  It is important to be clear about what was being sought: the Admiralty was not asking for resources to be shifted from producing aircraft to producing warships, nor was it asking for aircraft to be given to the Navy instead of the RAF (although given the parlous position of the Fleet Air Arm, this would have been no bad thing).

Rather, they were appealing for one Command of the RAF to be strengthened.  Moreover, the numbers sought were relatively tiny, in the tens compared to the thousands being produced – quite literally, the number lost in one fairly bad night over Germany.  The resistance to this modest proposal was all the more extraordinary because it was well known that the bombing offensive was failing to deliver anything like the results that had been promised.  Most historians, including many sympathetic to air power, accept that this failure to commit VLR aircraft to the Atlantic was an error.  So, how can this apparent failure of strategy and policy be explained?

The main problem was the strategic tunnel vision of the RAF leadership and their dogmatic obsession with winning the war by bombing.  The majority of senior airmen – and this applied to Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, as much as to Harris, head of Bomber Command – were utterly mesmerised by the strategic air offensive against Germany.  They refused to countenance any reduction in the effort devoted to it and bitterly resisted any suggestion that aircraft be transferred to the other roles of air power.

These included cooperation with the Army and the Fleet Air Arm (to which the RAF had a deep and abiding aversion), since these did not fit the narrow conception of air power that was prevalent among too many senior airmen.  It also applied to Coastal Command, which truly was the ‘Cinderella service’, derided at one point by Harris as a mere obstacle to victory.  Strategic bombing was little short of an obsession, a holy grail for the independent air force.  The result was that a relatively tiny transfer of VLR aircraft, which would have a minimal effect on the meagre results of the bombing offensive yet would have a decisive impact in the Atlantic, was treated almost as an existential threat.

The language used and the hysterical reaction to any proposal that infringed the theology of strategic bombing is remarkable: the use of air power in other roles was ‘diversion’, ‘plunder’ or even ‘robbery’, while Harris described any suggestion to reallocate a handful of aircraft as seeking the end of the bombing offensive and the ‘breaking up’ of Bomber Command.  Naturally, Bomber Command was the only ‘offensive’ arm of British strategy, with all the efforts of the Navy and indeed the Army dismissed as merely defensive.  As egregious a misunderstanding of strategy and misuse of language as this was, it was effective bureaucratic politics, calculated to appeal to Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister.

What made this failure of vision all the more ironic was that the increasingly desperate calls for more aircraft for the war at sea represented the Admiralty accepting something that proponents of air power had long argued; sea power now needed to be exerted by aircraft as well as by warships.  As far as the Air Ministry was concerned, however, nothing must interfere with the bombing offensive, not even protecting the shipping that was Britain’s lifeline in the war (without which, of course, Bomber Command and the rest of the RAF would swiftly be grounded).  As regards the utility of aircraft at sea the problem was not that the Admiralty did not get the principle; rather that, despite repeated efforts, they could not get the aircraft.

The heads of the other services (the Army was let down just as badly as the Navy) objected to their approach but appear to have been unwilling to risk the disruption that would ensue from any concerted challenge to the RAF’s principal article of faith; combined with the declining health of Pound, the First Sea Lord, this gave a regrettable edge in the bureaucratic clash to the stubbornness of the RAF leadership.

When the Chiefs of Staff are deadlocked, the decision should be taken by their political masters.  Yet no solution was forthcoming here for two reasons.  First, despite so often being disillusioned by the yawning gap between promise and delivery, Churchill proved unable to resist the seductive vision presented to him by the bomber barons.  This fatal attraction was exacerbated by the second factor, his remarkable inconsistency in setting and balancing priorities.

His government attached to various air and naval programmes and campaigns a range of labels including priority, high priority, highest priority, very highest priority, absolute priority, over-riding priority, first priority, A1 priority (and also 1A priority), extreme priority and supreme priority – let alone other terms such as (in a single memorandum, for different projects) ‘prime effort’ and ‘paramount object’.  This terminological mayhem represented an abdication of the need to establish clear and consistent priorities and hence to allocate resources appropriately.

Strategic bombing was only one (and far from the most important) of the roles of air power yet it soaked up scarce resources quite disproportionate to its contribution to the war effort, with a serious impact on other campaigns and roles.  The bomber offensive against Germany did eventually achieve a considerable amount, albeit never close to what its proponents claimed it would.  A small proportion of the resources devoted to it might well have achieved more far elsewhere, not least in the Battle of the Atlantic where the ideological fixation of the RAF at best needlessly extended the duration and cost of this vital campaign, and at worst risked defeat.

Image: By U.S. Navy (photo 80-G-474788), Post-Work: User: W. Wolny [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

3 comments

  1. Very interesting article. It may pay having a look through a recent MA Dissertation from a student at the University of Birmingham (David Beniston). David’s research examined the role of long-range strategic aircraft (among other factors) and the closing of the air gap.

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  2. Tim,

    An interesting argument but on the point of the the ‘stubbornness’ of the RAF’s senior leadership surely the reverse can also be argued about their RN and Army counterparts. Intellectually, the RAF’s senior leadership of the Second World War were very capable officers and in some respects better educated than their counterparts from the RN and Army. Throughout the inter-war years the RN’s senior leadership struggled to view the RAF as a service but consistently fought to get its ‘toys’ back. This is clear in many of the minutes of the various committees set-up to examine the question of an independent air force. By not treating the RAF as a service, the RN ‘created’ some of the challenges that it faced during the Second World War concerning the effective use of air power. For example, when discussing planned revisions to the Manual of Combined Operations, the RN were unwilling to take on board many of the RAF’s views because, in essence, they were ‘paying for it’. This is not to say the the RAF is not guilty of some ‘creative’ accounting but perhaps helps contextualise these ongoing inter-service debates that influenced strategy. I also remain unconvinced that had the FAA returned to the Admiralty’s control earlier then it would have been invested in. Similarly, on the Churchill issue, isn’t the RN a little bit to blame here by not fully explaining the importance of the battle to Churchill. He was always easily swayed by the more offensive option.

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  3. Wasn’t the delivery failure of promised American aircraft such as the PBY5’s, B24’s and Hudson III’s certainly from 1940-41, an important factor, that left CC in such a parlous state, especially given its travails with RAF/MAP?

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