Sophy Gardner is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, and a former RAF Wing Commander of twenty-years experience. You can follow her on Twitter @sophygardner
In many ways, the newly created RAF’s approach to the resource and recruitment challenges of the early inter-war period was highly modern, presaging later educational reforms such as academic selection to grammar schools and promoting meritocratic principles long before Michael Young’s dystopian critique coined the term ‘meritocracy’. While the education of officers in staff colleges and in preparation for command attracts much contemporary attention, and some historical analysis, the recruitment, education, and opportunities provided to non-commissioned airmen in the early days of the RAF provide a complementary case study of a progressive and creative solution designed at a time of economic and political difficulty for the young force.
The focus on training, and attracting the brightest boys to the junior service was a central pillar of the RAF’s post-war plan. The RAF’s Chief, Hugh Trenchard, singled out the training of men (as opposed to officers) as: ‘The most difficult problem of all in the formation of this force’. In the challenging financial climate of the time, he chose to target his limited resources not on new technology, but on the less glamorous attributes of buildings, training, and personnel. Trenchard firmly favoured foundations over aircraft and squadrons. Apprentice training for boys was to form a key part of the new RAF’s identity, with a scheme that ran, in a form recognisable from its roots in 1919, until 1993.
In fact, these plans contained significantly more than the seeds for the future growth of a skilled workforce and a fundamental building block of the service: it also had a strong and important public-facing aspect to it, offering a good education for young boys from less privileged backgrounds, ensuring them solid prospects for later civilian life. Additionally, from the outset it consciously promoted social mobility within the service, the realisation of which benefited the RAF of the Second World War and beyond, as much as it changed the lives of the many individuals who made the journey from secondary school to senior leadership.
The age of enlistment was from fifteen to sixteen and a half years old: aimed at attracting school leavers who might be enticed by a career in aviation, with its glamorous associations with hero pilots. Each course lasted three years and consisted of a remarkably comprehensive educational syllabus, as well as core vocational skills for future aircraft technicians, military training, and the inculcation of a particular and self-confident RAF identity. RAF Halton was to become the flagship training centre of the post-war RAF, home to No 1 School of Technical Training (Boys).
The Air Ministry approached the challenges of attracting sufficient applicants by reaching out to those geographically and economically distant from the opportunities the training offered. Working with Local Education Authorities (LEAs), who provided vital local assistance and knowledge to the centralised bureaucracy of the post-war RAF, the Air Ministry devised a system in which boys were nominated by their LEA for examinations held locally. The express intention was to make the process as accessible as possible, devised to be ‘brought as far as possible into line with the ordinary work of schools so that a boy can take it without special preparation’ and without the need to travel far. The Air Ministry wanted to make sure it captured able boys even if their parents could not afford ‘the expense of sending them to some distant examination centre’.
This explicit effort to make the apprentice scheme as accessible as possible to ‘ordinary’ boys in state-funded education would have been an admirable attempt at improving social mobility even without the additional plan to offer the top graduating apprentices the opportunity to progress to cadetships at the RAF College Cranwell, for officer training. This emerged as a key element of the scheme at its earliest stages, and was refined and developed during the 1920s.
Treasury files reveal the discussions between the Air Ministry and the Treasury, which led to concrete financial support for the scheme. The Air Ministry wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury in 1920 that the existing regulations included ‘a suggestion that boys who complete the course of training satisfactorily may be offered cadetships in the Royal Air Force, but this offer will be meaningless unless it is accompanied by a remission of the fees ordinarily payable by the cadets’. The fees at Cranwell (approximately £75 a year) were well out of the reach of ordinary boys from families who could not afford train fares or school fees. The letter went on to say that the Air Council ‘trusts that Their Lordships will give favourable consideration to the proposals contained in this letter. They feel that under modern conditions considerable facilities for promotion from the ranks are required’.Minute sheets in the files then record an internal discussion between Mr Pemberton and Mr Pinsent, of the Treasury, with Mr Pemberton offering the view:
This seems to be the question of how far we can go in the direction of “democratization” of the forces. […] I think it is not unreasonable to say that the RAF is altogether a more democratic force than the Army or Navy. It is clear from 39947/19 that the senior officers of the Army are desirous of adhering to the aristocratic tradition as far as possible and from what I know of the Navy their views are the same. At any rate I think it very unlikely that they would want to send boys of the Air Mechanics class to Dartmouth.
In reply, Mr Pinsent pointed out that other documentation showed the Navy also aspired to be ‘democratic’ and he confirmed that the Treasury had already sanctioned a scheme ‘even more generous’ (financially one assumes from the Treasury viewpoint) for Naval candidates for Dartmouth.The Treasury concurred with the Air Ministry’s petition and wrote to support up to twelve cadetships a year, exempting the successful candidates from fees and from payments for uniforms and books, as well as giving grants for outfits and camp kit.
The apprentices who won cadetships performed well at Cranwell, despite their very different backgrounds from other cadets: testament, it is argued, to the breadth and depth of the apprenticeship syllabus. One of Halton’s alumni who went on to progress to air rank was Air Marshal Sir Kenneth Porter. He had applied for an apprenticeship as a result of being orphaned with no financial means at the age of fourteen. His recollections include his specific praise of the curriculum:
The syllabus covered mechanics, mechanical drawing and a general subject titled English. This last subject covered amongst other things a broad coverage of the history of civilisations starting at the Stone Age and finishing with the organisation of local and Parliamentary Government, and the reading of Shaw’s Plays, it was not only most interesting but taught what few, if any, schools taught. […] Looking back I think that the excellence of the education was the reason that the many Apprentices who were commissioned during the war did so well and reached high rank. I found when I became a cadet at Cranwell that I had already done more mathematics than the syllabus required and the rest of the education course gave me no difficulty.
A report by the Board of Education on Apprentice Training later in the 1930s shows that teaching the arts and humanities, alongside trades skills and sciences, had continued, ensuring the boys were in a position to compete successfully as trainee officers at Cranwell alongside the majority who had a public school education.
One winner of a cadetship was Frank Whittle, later Group Captain and father of the jet engine, who in an article for the Halton Magazine recorded: ‘it is worthy of record that the six of us of the September 23 entry who became Flight Cadets took six out of the first seven places on passing out of the R.A.F. College’.The Cranwell Character Book, which recorded details of RAF College Cadets, showed that airmen apprentices came top of the officers’ course on seventeen out of thirty-two courses on which there were cadets (and while constituting on average only 10.5% of the attendees).
The factors pertinent to the RAF developing the apprentice scheme were, as with so much of the RAF’s early post-war development, a confluence of needs and aspirations that came together in a modern and novel form. The RAF needed to cement its identity and develop a cadre of men who were RAF to the core, with no previous allegiance to the other services. Recruitment of skilled workers was inadequate for the needs of the service and so attracting teenage boys, with whom the populist cultural and symbolic appeals of aircraft and aviation were probably most effective, gave the RAF a ready pool of applicants. Demonstrating a desire to ‘open doors’ to candidates who might not otherwise be able to apply for an apprenticeship, and offering a comprehensive further education, afforded the RAF additional reputational prestige.
The opportunity for cadetships with access, therefore, to an overt form of social mobility was innovative and neoteric. It also stood in contrast with the post-war attitudes of the other services. The War Office, facing shortages of skilled men in various wireless trades, resorted to public advertisements and offers of £100 bounties to join, yet after fifteen months they had attracted only 244 out of the required 1250 men. In the same year, interest in the boys apprentice scheme was bearing dividends: ‘a very good type of boy is being obtained. In July last there were some 1,100 applicants for 500 vacancies’.
The Second World War is the key backdrop against which the achievements of apprentice training can be viewed. The training scheme provided a large cohort of the RAF with a firm sense of identity forged through a shared experience of a long, testing, and intense training process. These early recruits would form the backbone of the wartime RAF, as aircraft technicians, sergeant aircrew, and commissioned officers. The scheme was a success from the start and between 1923 and 1958 over 20% of the boys who graduated were granted commissions; 80% of the rest became senior Non-Commissioned Officers. The active efforts of the RAF to find talented recruits from across the country, nurture and educate them to a high standard, and offer them the opportunity to reach the very highest ranks of the service, were ahead of their time and deserve their place in the history of military education.
Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033; an Essay on Education and Equality, (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1976).
Cmd 467, An Outline of the Scheme for the Permanent Organization of the Royal Air Force, 11 December 1919, copy available in [T]he [N]ational [A]rchives, AIR 1/17/15/1/84.
TNA, Air 2/148, Boy Mechanics, Royal Air Force, letter to unnamed official from Educational Adviser for Air Commodore Director of Training and Organisation, 9 May 1921.
TNA T 161/58/9, letter from McAnally to Bairstow, 22 September 1920.
TNA T 161/58/9, minute sheet recording discussion between Mr Pemberton and Mr Pinsent, 8-16 October 1920.
Trenchard Museum Archive, ‘One of Trenchards Brats’ [sic], Air Marshal Sir Kenneth Porter Recollections, undated, unaccessioned, 8-9.
TNA ED 114/509, Report of Inspection of the Training Scheme for Aircraft Apprentices, Royal Air Force, Cranwell’, 1936, included a recommendation limiting history teaching to ‘19thcentury History and be continued to the present day. This plan would allow more time to be given to the remaining parts of the syllabus which could be dealt with more fully.’
Trenchard Museum Archive, ‘Per Ardua Ad Astra Superna Petimus Perseventia’, Group Captain Whittle, Halton Magazine, 1944.
RAF Cranwell Archive, CRN/D/2011/71, RAF College Character Book, from Fin Monahan, ‘The Origins of the Organisational Culture of the Royal Air Force’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Birmingham, 2018), p181.
RAF Museum, Personal Papers of Lord Trenchard, MFC 76/1/100 2 of 3, letter from Air Commodore Game to Trenchard, 24 October 1921.
TNA, Air 8/42, Memorandum on Air Expenditure prepared by the Air Ministry for the Committee of National Expenditure, October 1921.
Image: Lord Trenchard inspecting apprentices at RAF Halton at a passing out parade, 1927, via wikimedia commons.