The Royal Navy's Air Service in the Great War by David Hobbs

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  • Commander Hobbs, after service as a Fleet Air Arm pilot with several hundred deck landings to his log book, for many years ran the FAA Museum at Yeovilton, and has published several works on naval aviation. He is thus exactly the right person to compile this history of the RNAS' gestation and WW1 service, and he does not disappoint.

    Less than a year into the War the three year old RNAS had expanded beyond landplanes, seaplanes, flying boats, airships and balloons, into armoured cars (originally to support flight operations in France and Belgium), its own organic ack-ack, armoured trains, and tanks. It had deployed to the Dardanelles, the Adriatic and East Africa (and later into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea in support of the Army), and in its armoured car role to Namibia, Russia and Romania. The RFC was markedly inferior to the Admiralty in the matter of procurement and recruitment. The RNAS was repeatedly, to the detriment of necessary maritime operations, bled for aircraft, personnel, aircraft engines and ultimately whole squadrons and was supporting the Western Front with strategic bombing. The response, forensically analysed by Hobbs, was resentment, obstruction and eventually the subordinated absorption of the RNAS into the infant RAF on All Fools' Day 1918. The RNAS transferred 55,066 officers and men (up from 830 at the outbreak of the War), 2,949 aircraft (91),103 airships and 126 coastal stations (up from nine) – massive feat of organisation in only 3 1/2 years, the while swallowing massive leaps in technical sophistication.

    The RNAS' surrender was engineered via the Smuts pipe-dream report whose chief features were total ignorance of UK maritime needs – the Admiralty's failure to engage and paucity of advocacy much to blame – together with misrepresentation and argument by false analogy. The failure to challenge this by Churchill's over-promoted protegé Beatty reflects, for me, that officer's notoriously shallow and slapdash approach to detail. Politics and personal ambitions won over the essential maritime interests of the country. Recovery took nearly thirty years and some of the effects are still being felt today.

    Besides this enormous expansion the RNAS had allowed junior officers their head in proposing new methods and materiel. At its demise the RNAS' personnel's initiative, creativity and drive was fully bearing fruit. It was experimenting with air-dropped torpedoes and planning a 'Taranto' on the High Seas Fleet and was pioneering the world's first flush-deck aircraft carrier; its flight operations from other ships prefigured the CAM ships of WW2 (with an inevitable ditching) and the need for a Combat Air Patrol had been realised. Anti-submarine warfare using airships and aircraft was well established and successful. Anti-Zeppelin (and Gotha) techniques were mature. The USN was learning from us - so also, later and ironically, our other allies the Japanese. All of this and much more is described in deep detail, interspersed with accounts of individual operations and actions which give a fine flavour of the dedication and courage of RNAS aircrew.

    The book is profusely illustrated throughout with photographs and diagrams appropriate to the adjacent text. Many are from the author's extraordinarily extensive own, and other private collections so will not have been previously seen. Citations are carefully noted and an extensive bibliography is provided. My only gripe was having to keep a marker in the notes to pick up on asides as I read along.

    I look forward enthusiastically to the author's sequel relating to naval aviation between the Wars.

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