Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945

By Tami Davis Biddle | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Britain in the Interwar Years

IN the aftermath of the war, the young RAF faced an immediate fight for its institutional life. Though it survived, it had to articulate an ongoing raison d'être as a separate service. This requirement had the effect of elevating the role of strategic bombing above other tasks, and compelling the RAF's leadership to continue protecting its wartime bombing record in the exaggerated terms that Trenchard had employed in his own defense. Aggressive arguments for the continued existence of an independent air force helped establish a pattern of exaggeration that ultimately would help to create a gap between RAF declaratory policy and its actual capabilities. In addition, Trenchardian policy was vague; it lacked clear guidance, particularly on questions of targeting. Public articulations of RAF thought worried the other services, and fostered popular expectations about air warfare that would prove, ultimately, self-deterring for Britain. As a new war approached, RAF leaders would struggle to close the divide between rhetoric and reality by figuring out—in ways that Trenchard had not—how actually to plan and wage a major strategic air campaign.

The chapter necessarily begins with a further examination and elaboration of two important and related ideas from the World War I experience that would strongly influence British interwar thinking about strategic bombardment: the theory of the offensive and the “moral effect” of bombing. Indeed, they would prove central to RAF planning and decision making in the 1920s and 1930s.


THE OFFENSIVE THEORY OF AIR POWER

Trenchard attached great weight to offensive tactics, embracing the conviction that air war must be guided foremost by a commitment to the “relentless and incessant offensive.” This emphasis fit into his preexisting conception of effective behavior in wartime, and it was, in addition, reinforced by his wartime experience and by his subsequent need to explain his actions in the two key posts he held during the most difficult and consequential war his nation had ever fought. In particular, Trenchard's emphasis on the offensive helped to justify the heavy casualties that otherwise might have been an embarrassment to him. 1

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