Air University Review July-August 1967
Air Chief Marshal Sir Basil E. Embry, RAF (Ret)
The great man abides by what is solid and eschews what is flimsy: dwells with the fruit and not with the flower.
Canon of Tao and its Manifestation
In his latest book, The Military Intellectuals in
The value of this book* lies primarily in bringing to light the vital importance of interservice understanding and cooperation, particularly in politico-military affairs. Undoubtedly there was bitter rivalry among the three fighting services in Britain from 1919 to about 1941, and only the experience of war, the acid taste of military reverses, and the common sense of British commanders of the stature of Portal, Alanbrooke, Tedder, Montgomery, and Slim eradicated this malignant disease that was undermining the combined fighting efficiency of the British armed forces. The interservice harmony and understanding created during the Second World War has not only continued to the present day but gained in strength.
The same cannot be said about the fighting services of all NATO nations or perhaps of certain countries outside the Western alliance too. Indeed in 1953-55, when I was a NATO commander, I was so convinced that the internecine squabbling among the services of certain allies was undermining the efficiency of NATO that I wrote a paper on the subject for the Supreme Commander, after discussion with him.
Strained relations between services usually spring from misunderstanding and ignorance of each other’s problems. Yet they rarely occur at the sharp end of affairs; it is way back from the scene of carnage and sacrifice that the battle is joined, and more so in peace than war. In the British services in pre-1939 days, the potion that promoted interservice strife was prepared and administered by those who held the purse strings. Combined service staffs, close personal relationships at the summit of affairs, and careful selection of service appointments would seem to be the antidote to interservice discord.
The author presents a sound argument for a government sponsoring civilian research into defence problems, along the lines of the RAND Corporation. The complexity of modern defence and the vital importance of obtaining the correct solutions to the associated problems, brought about by the advent of weapons of mass destruction and highly sophisticated weapon systems, lift defence (using the term in its widest sense) to a plane of importance hitherto unparalleled in the history of nations. For this reason defence should not be left exclusively in the bands of the professional soldier, sailor, and airman, although the service chiefs will and must carry the burden of responsibility for advising their political masters on defence policy and the methods of implementation.
Whilst the fighting services will always attract their share of first-class brains and highly dedicated personnel to their ranks, it is obviously wise, if not imperative, to cast the net beyond this field to find talent and brainpower to help solve some of the more complex problems of defence. An added advantage derived from such a policy is that a civilian organisation may approach the same problem quite differently from the services, and that is healthy.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the British government as far
back as the 1930s did not look beyond the purely professional side of the
services for research into defence problems. But they relied on ad hoc
committees set up for a specific purpose, which is not the same as having in-being an organisation such as
It might be argued that to turn to an agency outside government control for evaluation of specific defence problems might undermine the responsible authority and invite covert advice and criticism; but that should not be so if a proper relationship exists.
In the early 1930s the Service Ministries in
That climate of mistrust does not persist in
Perhaps the lessons to be learned from the experience of the United Kingdom
are, first, that it takes years to build up a tradition of trust and
confidence, be it between the fighting services themselves or between the
services and the outside world, and but a few irresponsible actions to destroy
it. Second, that modern defence has assumed such importance as to make it
imperative that a nation tap every source available to find a solution to its
defence problems. It may be that the
The reader will have to judge for himself the section of Higham’s book
dealing with military intellectuals. He briefly summarizes the works of a
number of British writers on military affairs, of whom
Although I have remained silent on that part of the book dealing with “military intellectuals,” “pundits of sea power,” and “advocates of mechanized land power,” it is not intended to imply I necessarily endorse all that is written. I was left with the thought: How easy it is to make critical comments when writing in retrospect about events that have passed. And how much more difficult it is to look into the future and predict accurately what a country’s strategy should be twenty years ahead and forecast the weapon systems to implement it, not knowing what the political atmosphere of the day may be then or in the intervening period.
No student of war would deny that mistakes were made in British strategical
planning, in the evaluation of the effectiveness of certain weapons, in the
tactical doctrine for the employment of land, sea, and air forces, and in the
The author seems to have been unduly influenced by the views expressed by
the few who wrote on British air power between the two World Wars. Perhaps that
is understandable; but he should have borne in mind that it is not always the
most able and intellectual who write books on military affairs. I believe this
was particularly so in
In my opinion a book written on the subject chosen by Robin Higham loses merit if it concentrates almost entirely on criticism, trying to give the impression that all those in positions of authority and trust during the period under review lacked vision and strategical perception. A critical book gains in strength if it gives credit where credit is due and an explanation why certain things did not happen which when viewed in retrospect seem to have deserved higher priority. Criticism alone, without some approbation, gives the impression that an author has an axe to grind, a “bee in the bonnet,” is suffering from an emotional pique, or is critically destructive to arouse sensation.
It is not practical to challenge all points of disagreement because they are too numerous and my article would become a catalogue of corrections and denials. Nevertheless, I wish to make it clear that in my judgment that part of the book dealing with air power is coloured throughout by statements which are open to challenge. The book left me with the impression that it lacked a sense of historical research and that the author is not master of his subject, possessing little more than a superficial grasp of it. In explanation, let me select at random a few allegations or statements he has made, as a cross section of my critical thoughts on this book.
Higham states that the British apostles of air power believed that the threat of a gigantic knockout air strike in the opening stages of a war would keep the peace, and he goes on to criticize them for failing to provide the means to carry out such a strike. He claims the deterrent was neither operable nor credible to anyone but themselves. He admits these views were not supported by the working majority in any of the services. (pp. 119-20)
Higham does not say who were the apostles of air power, but so far as I am
aware no such claims were ever put forward officially by the Air Staff in the
1920s and 1930s. Certainly such theories were not taught at the
The fact that certain theories may have been expressed by authors who held no official position or authority and by fictional writers such as H. G. Wells had no bearing on Air Staff doctrine and philosophy on which the structure and employment of the RAF were based.
Those members of the Air Staff who carried the burden of responsibility for
advising the government on defence, for the buildup of the RAF in the years after
Hitler came to power, and for its operational control at the outset of war were
well aware that Bomber Command per se was not capable of inflicting mortal
damage to German industry, let alone knocking her out by a single blow. What
they did argue was the great contribution the bomber could make to defence as a
counter to enemy bombing attacks and in support, particularly indirectly, of
the other services, by an offensive against ports, communications centres, and
other specific targets. They also argued that for a potential enemy to have a
powerful bomber force which
The philosophy on the use of a potential weapon is not necessarily at fault because the actual ironmongery is not immediately available in quantity and perfection in front-line units. The Air Staff argument in support of strategic bombing was based on the results it might be expected to achieve, not on the results it could achieve with the meagre forces at its disposal before 1939.
It would have been preposterous to claim in 1939 that Bomber Command could win the war single-handed, and no such claim was ever made. Nevertheless, Bomber Command was the only means of dealing immediate and increasingly heavy blows against a triumphant enemy and undermining his war economy.
It is admitted the RAF did not have the means to carry out a sustained
daylight offensive against
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that Bomber Command was almost ineffective up to 1944 as implied by the tone of the Higham book.
During the Battle of Britain the Command conducted the most crippling and
devastating attacks against the assembled invasion barges and ports of
During 1942 and 1943 the Bomber Command offensive gradually increased in
intensity as the size of the force was built up and the effectiveness improved
by the introduction of heavier bombs and modern navigational equipment. The
damage inflicted, although extensive, was not mortal; and this is used as an
argument by those who try to belittle Bomber Command’s contribution to victory.
It is true that by the end of 1943 German industrial capacity employed directly
on war production was at a higher level than in 1939. Nevertheless, but for the
Bomber Command attacks it would have been at a higher level of output and free
to concentrate on specific equipment, perhaps of a more destructive
nature, rather than having to cover the whole range of armament requirements.
Writing on the deterrent striking force (a term I had never heard used in the RAF in relation to a bomber offensive until the advent of the atomic bomb), Higham writes:”……moreover, the basic strategy adopted was false in that emphasis was put first upon a blow against an enemy and only secondly and with extreme reluctance upon defence of the island…..”(p.18) The way it is expressed is utterly and entirely false.
To my knowledge it had always been the teaching in the RAF since early in the 1920s that air power demanded a balance between the offensive elements as represented by the bomber and the defensive in the form of the fighter, and the arguments for a strengthened and balanced air force were pressed with cogent argument and consistently throughout the years up to 1939. Unquestionably a ratio between fighter and bomber was laid down as a planning figure, and until the introduction of radar, which revolutionized the whole problem of air defence, the ratio was 2:1. This figure had been worked out from practical experience in the First World War and from exercise assessments in peace. To suggest there was a priority as between bomber and fighter is incorrect.
I believe that ratio was about correct until the introduction of
radar. As soon as it became scientifically possible to obtain warning of the
approach of hostile aircraft, fix their position accurately, and direct fighters for an interception, that ratio was changed.
Even so —and I write with some experience of that time—it was not possible to
intercept and destroy more than a percentage of a raiding force. This was
proved in the Battle of Britain and in the bomber offensive against
Higham in his endeavour to belittle the RAF writes: “If Liddell Hart and Sir Thomas Inskip had not pressed for defence of the home base …. . England might well have been Nazified in 1940,” (p 139) This passage follows a condemnation of Trenchard and his influence on the RAF philosophy and obviously tries to give the impression that the Air Ministry and RAF neglected air defence. With great respect to both Liddell Hart and Inskip, this is not correct. Undoubtedly they supported the urgent requirement to strengthen the air defences of the United Kingdom, but Higham is obviously referring (p. 49) to a paper Liddell Hart wrote on the expansion of antiaircraft gun defence in 1937, which was an army responsibility. The Air Ministry three years before had set up the investigation that led to radar, and by 1937 a programme of development was well under way and the fighter force was being expanded and crews trained as quickly as was possible under the conditions prevailing at that time. With due deference to the antiaircraft gun command of 1940, which I hold in high esteem, the doubling, trebling, or even quadrupling of its gun strength would not have influenced the Battle of Britain had the fighter force and all that goes into an air defence system not been built up as it was under the direction and initiative of the Air Ministry and RAF.
Whilst still on the subject of the air defence of the
It is the considered opinion of most students of war that it was primarily
the RAF which prevented the Germans from defeating
Our fate now depended upon the victory in the air….The result therefore turned upon destruction of the R.A.F. and the system of airfields between
and the sea. . . . We know that Hitler said to Admiral Raeder on July 31: “If after 8 days of intensive air war the Luftwaffe has not achieved considerable destruction of the enemy’s air force, harbours and naval forces, the operation will have to be put off until May 1941.” (Second World War, II, 281) London
And again Churchill wrote:
At the summit the stamina and valour of our fighter pilots remained unconquerable and supreme. Thus
was saved. (II, 300) Britain
All the RAF airfields and radars between
Higham’s quite unfounded criticism of Trenchard, as well as the way it is presented, is a condemnation only of the author, because it reveals ignorance of the truth and a prejudiced approach to his examination of Trenchard’s contribution to British air power. His innuendoes and constant censure are in poor taste. As an example: “For despite his emphasis upon training, he bequeathed to Churchill the Prime Minister, his former master, a weapon hardly ready for war in 1940.” (p. 239) This despite the fact that Trenchard retired as Chief of Air Staff in 1929—ten years before the outbreak of war and only eleven after the formation of the Royal Air Force.
This is not the place to deal with the tremendous struggle Trenchard had
between 1920 and 1929 to obtain more than the most parsimonious share of the
defence budget for the RAF. It is, however, of interest to note that
while Churchill was Chancellor of the Exchequer the RAF budget in 1928 was only
£16 ½ million and that over the five years ending in 1929 out of £600 million
devoted to defence the RAF’s share was only three shillings in the pound.
Moreover in February 1928 Trenchard wrote to Churchill: “I consider it my duty
to point out that we are in a lower state of preparation in
It is sad to record that Churchill, of all people, when Chancellor of the Exchequer (1924-29) kept a financial stranglehold on the services in the middle and late 1920s; to every request for money came the same answer: “What is it wanted for?—there will be no war for ten years”! Besides obstructing and restricting research, development, expansion, and experiment within each service, this created a bitter rivalry, already referred to, among the services. That was the financial climate of the day, and its influence was directly reflected on the preparedness of the services for war in 1939. It is almost miraculous what Trenchard did achieve under the circumstances.
Besides material things, he gave to the RAF an insatiable appetite for professional pride, a desire to get at the root of a problem, a distaste for ostentation (in RAF parlance known as “bull”), a defeatless sense of humour in adversity, and a flexibility of outlook on professional matters. He was the man who designed and built the foundations of the RAF, which, with due deference to the opinion of Robin Higham, in the conviction of those more qualified to judge played a decisive part in the Allied victory in the Second World War.
Higham seems to be obsessed with his prejudice that the strategic bombing of
The author makes the mistake of placing too narrow an interpretation on the
aim of the strategical bombing of
The bombing offensive against
What were the overall economic effects of the air offensive? I quote from the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey:
From December 1944 onwards all sectors of the German economy were in rapid decline. The collapse was due to the results of bombing working in combination with other causes. The output of armaments fell from a peak index figure of 322 in July 1944 to 263 in December and 145 in March 1945. (pp. 36-38)
And this is what Speer, Minister for Armament and War Production, in a report dated 15 March 1945, had to say:
The German war economy is heading for an inevitable collapse within 4-8 weeks.
Did the strategic bombing of
Even if the final military victories that carried the Allied armies across the Rhine and the
Oderhad not taken place, armament production would have come to a virtual standstill by May. The indications are convincing that the German armies, completely bereft of ammunition and motive power, would have had to cease fighting. (p.38)
What is significant is that, in spite of the greater destructive power of
the weapons used in the Second World War as compared with those used in the
First, the casualties suffered by the British land forces from the time of the
landing on the Normandy beaches to the final collapse of Germany were lower
than those inflicted on an older generation before breakfast at Passchendaele
on 6 November 1917. (I have no figures on
In conclusion, may I express the view that a defensive strategy is the handmaid of the weak and timid, and although it may be necessary as a temporary expedience it leads to disaster if adopted as a national policy. By contrast, an offensive strategy, exercised with boldness, decision, and determination, leads to strength and success.
*Robin Higham, The Military Intellectuals
Dr. Higham replies
It is an honor to be reviewed by such a distinguished officer, so it is with regret that I must take issue with Sir Basil on several points.
Quite true, much supporting material exists. As I pointed out in the
Preface, a 35-page bibliography is contained in my companion volume, Armed
Forces in Peacetime:
Sir Basil interprets the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey to mean that air power accomplished its role, whereas I hold that it shows the prewar doctrine lacked the means to achieve its purpose. In defense of my view I will say that five years of war is a long time for a weapon designed to prevent war to take effect.
Sir Basil as a leading participant enjoys an advantage over an author who had to dig into volumes of official histories and the memoirs of participants, including Sir Basil’s. If my ground-breaking efforts resulted in some misinterpretations, in extenuation I might point to the Fifty-Year Rule which restricts use of official papers.
If historians have the duty to name names, perhaps reviewers have, too. Sir Basil does not name those who he says helped plan British air power. And some of the developments he talks about must either have been strictly in technical fields (in which the universities did do some work) or else have taken place after 1934. For instance, he indicates that the RAF was well aware that it could not inflict mortal damage on Germany after Hitler came to power; yet according to Webster and Frankland (I, 91-92) it was not until September 1938, in the midst of the Munich crisis, that the RAF’s weakness in this respect was made patent.
My use of the current word “deterrent,” which Lanchester used in 1915, to
describe a concept of the earlier era seems to have led Sir Basil to refute the
existence of the counterstrike idea itself. The Air Staff may not have realized
that they were planning for a deterrent force, but others in the government did
and were calculating the future in terms of a massive bombing of
The military should have both the doctrine and equipment to carry out its
task. Sir Basil attacks Liddell Hart’s stand in the later 1930s when a larger
number of fighters rather than bombers was imposed upon the Air Ministry from
outside. It can be argued that Liddell Hart’s teaching influenced the adoption
of new tactics in World War II which kept casualties down, notably in the
One lesson is clear—that doctrine and equipment, training and practice, must always be flexible enough to anticipate and respond to actual as well as hypothetical situations.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Basil E. Embry, G.C.B., K.B.E., Royal Air Force
(Retired), was Commander of Allied Air Forces Central Europe, NATO, at the
time of his retirement in 1956. He was commissioned as pilot officer in the RAF
in 1921, served in
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this
document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression,
academic environment of
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