RAF CENTENARY – 26 November 2018
Dr Julian Lewis: As the shadow Secretary of State [Nia Griffith] pointed out, this is the third defence debate in less than a fortnight. For the defence team, it must be as if all their ships are sailing home at the same time. Anyone would think that the House of Commons had nothing other than defence with which to occupy itself. Let us take advantage of it.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Gavin Williamson): It’s the most important subject.
Dr Lewis: Indeed it is the most important subject.
It is a privilege to follow two such positive and upbeat speeches from two such positive and upbeat Front Benchers. Both our parties are lucky to have them holding the positions they do. The moving intervention from the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) was especially important. It is so important in such debates to humanise the general subject by reminding the House of the real identities of individuals and what they went through in the course of conflict. She should be very proud that her grandfather’s award of the Distinguished Flying Medal, won for actions before he lost his life, came through, although sadly only after he had died.
The original thought that crossed my mind was: why hold a debate of this sort in November? But of course it was in November 1917 that the Air Force (Constitution) Act was passed, which led to the establishment of the Royal Air Force on 1 April the following year. I will come back to the circumstances that led to that in a few moments, but first I want to personalise the debate a bit myself. Only last month, I went to Millbrook industrial estate in the neighbouring constituency of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), where the defence company Leonardo has a major establishment.
Leonardo was renaming one of its buildings, which had been rebuilt, after Flight Lieutenant James Brindley Nicolson, who, as many Members will know, was the only member of Fighter Command to win the Victoria Cross during the second world war. James Nicolson flew with 249 Squadron and was in one of three Hurricanes ambushed over Southampton. Sadly, he was not the only pilot to be shot down. Hon. Members will be aware that, while his aircraft was ablaze and he was about to bale out, he saw an opportunity to fire on an enemy aircraft. Even though his hands and face were burning, he stayed in the blazing aircraft until he had shot down the enemy. In an act of bathos that bordered on a war crime, he was further injured by being shot while parachuting downwards by an over-enthusiastic member of the Home Guard.
At the ceremony to name the building in Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s honour – sadly, although he survived that encounter, he did not survive the war – I met his nephew, who told me about the other Hurricane pilot who was shot down and whose grave I had seen in my constituency, in All Saints’ Church, Fawley, without knowing the story behind it. Martyn Aurel King, it now emerges, was the youngest pilot to fight and fly in the Battle of Britain; he was just 18 years old, and he died on that day in the same incident. After he baled out successfully, his parachute collapsed and he came down on the roof of a house in Shirley, Southampton, and died in the arms of the householder. We still do not know whether the reason that his parachute collapsed was that it was shredded during the attack on his aircraft, or that he too was the victim of whatever foolish and criminal people on the ground thought it fit to fire on descending pilots, whether the enemy or our own people. A terrible tragedy.
I had seen Martyn Aurel King’s grave because it is in the second of two rows of such graves in the churchyard. The first row contains the remains of Flight Lieutenant Samuel Marcus Kinkead DSO, DSC and Bar, DFC and Bar, whom I have occasionally mentioned in this House as an outstanding pilot in the first world war, the Russian civil war and the middle east, and ultimately one of the Schneider trophy pilots. He lost his life in 1928 trying to break the world air speed record. He was attempting to become the first man to exceed 5 miles a minute – 300 miles an hour – in a forerunner of the Spitfire, an S.5 seaplane.
Through researching and eventually writing a book about Kinkead’s life, I came to understand more about the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1917 and 1918. I realised that it had grown out of Parliament’s need to react to the increasing terror raids by Gotha bombers on London in particular, which greatly exceeded in terms of casualties the previous and much better known Zeppelin raids. Lieutenant General Jan Christian Smuts had been charged by Prime Minister David Lloyd George to look into the question of the aerial defence of London in particular and to make wider recommendations. A report by Smuts placed before the War Cabinet on 17 August 1917 was later described by the official historian of air power in the first world war as
“the most important paper in the history of the creation of the Royal Air Force”.
What Smuts said was this:
“Nobody that witnessed the attack on London on 7 July could have any doubt on that point… the day may not be far off when aerial operations, with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale, may become the principal operations of war to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.”
We have heard about how the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps played their separate parts in the formation of aerial tactics and strategy during the first world war; but what is interesting is the way in which the new Royal Air Force, created in April 1918, by August 1918 was so much more fully integrated with operations on the ground. Of all those events whose centenaries we have been commemorating over the past four years, only one was really positive: the centenary of 8 August 1918, the battle of Amiens, of which hardly anyone had heard – even though German military historians and German generals define that date as
“the black day of the German Army”
and British historians regard it as the start of the 100 days campaign that led to the collapse of German resistance and the Armistice in November.
What was significant was that the RAF operated in such close support of the troops on the ground that, for the first time, with the combination of armour, the vital element of surprise, and the extremely effective use of ground forces in complete and total co-ordination with air forces, the breakthroughs that had so long eluded the allied armed forces – leading to such catastrophic casualties at the Somme, Passchendaele and other, equally infamous, battles – turned into a successful and decisive result for the allied cause.
After the end of the first world war, the new air arm flexed its muscles. In my research into the life of Kinkead, I learned about the way in which it was used to try to exercise air control – to some extent by itself, but more effectively, once again, in combination with ground forces – in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1920s. In the 1930s, we see a very different view of air power: a belief that air power, coupled with the use of poison gas in particular and high explosive, would lead to the collapse of civilisation. That was what people then anticipated. Air power in the 1930s was very much regarded in the way that we regard nuclear war in the post-second world war era. As it happens, air power was not as powerful as was predicted, and gas was of course not used from the air in the second world war. Why? Because Winston Churchill had made it abundantly clear that any use of gas, either against our own forces, or even against the forces of our ally Russia, would be met by overwhelming response in kind from the Royal Air Force. That was an early example of deterrence preventing a dreadful weapon from being used at all. Poison gas was used in concentration camps because there was no deterrence there; the victims could not hit back.
During the war, there were arguments about area bombing and attempts to bring about the collapse that had been predicted in the 1930s, but it did not work. History has not been kind to the architects of aerial bombardment where whole populations were targeted for strategic reasons. Precision bombing proved to be far more effective and to a considerable extent far less costly. I think it was the historian AJP Taylor who described the loss of life in RAF Bomber Command during the second world war – more than 55,000 Bomber Command personnel died on operations – as “an aerial Passchendaele”. That, I feel, is no exaggeration.
When the war was over, the RAF was involved much more selectively in counter-insurgency campaigns in places such as Malaya, where, I cannot resist pointing out, my partner’s father, Frank Souness, won the Distinguished Flying Cross during those operations. He is 88 now and we are very proud of him. The purpose of what the RAF was doing was to try to help those countries that had been British colonies and were ceasing to be British colonies to establish themselves independently without falling victim to communist insurgencies. That was a very different role from what the RAF had been doing during the war, although it bore some resemblance to what it had been doing in between the wars.
Let me move on to the dawn of the British nuclear deterrent. It was the V-bombers, Victors, Vulcans and Valiants, that were responsible for carrying the nuclear bombs that constituted the strategic deterrent. Once again, we see the huge range and versatility of the different tasks that the RAF was called on to perform. We have heard from those on the Front Benches about the precision airstrikes that are being used in Iraq and Syria against Daesh. I supported the use of precision airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq, but I voted against it in Syria; not because I disapproved of it, but because it failed to acknowledge the fact that, apart from the Kurdish forces, there were not moderate forces on the ground in whose support that air power could be used. Time and again, we have seen that it is the combination of air power with troops on the ground that proves so vitally effective.
I conclude my remarks by saying, in relation to the RAF, something that the Secretary of State for Defence has heard me say many times in relation to defence generally – usually about warships: quantity has a quality all of its own. There is no doubt about the calibre of our personnel. There is no doubt about the sophistication of our equipment. What there is doubt about is the size and quantity of our armed forces. So I wish him luck in his continuing fight to get the percentage of GDP spent on defence back towards a level commensurate with the levels of threat we face. If he can supply the money, the people of Britain will supply the personnel and the ingenuity to see that the RAF is as effective in the future as it has been for the past 100 years.