By Martin Wade
The leafy Welsh village of Llanystumdwy is not traditionally known as the cradle of the world’s first independent Air Force.
But it was here, in his home town, that the wartime British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, came to ponder how the Great War could be won.
Among the problems he tussled with was the slaughter on the Western Front, but also the nightly German bombing raids on London which killed hundreds.
There was clamour for action as the bombers ranged over the city seemingly without challenge.
It seemed also air power could by-pass the quagmire on the Western Front and end the slaughter in the trenches.
These two problems would, in different ways, focus attention on how air power was used in ways that live with us still.
For much of the First World War British air power was wielded by the Army and the Navy. For the Army, the Royal Flying Corps was set up in 1912 and was designed for artillery spotting, reconnaissance and generally to support ground troops. The Royal Naval Air Service was born later with the aim of mounting coastal patrols, mounting ship-borne and surveillance over water. Both services were intended to fight in support of the aims of the Army or the Navy.
When the First World War broke out, air power was in its infancy. The first powered flight in an aircraft had only taken place 11 years previously in 1903. But as the war continued into its third year, it became clear that the potential for this new power was not being used effectively.
By 1917, aircraft had grown from the flimsy, underpowered and lightly armed craft of 1914 to heavy bombers capable of carrying heavy bombloads.
Then raids by German aircraft like these brought the terror of war to people at home, far away from the Western Front.
Although Zeppelin airships had carried out raids on Britain earlier in the war, they were small beer compared to the attacks by twin-enigined Gotha bombers.
Through the summer of 1917, the German bombers launched further raids on London, killing hundreds. There was dismay at how the air defences and fighters of the RFC and RNAS seemed unable to stop the attacks.
The raids became fiercer still when the Gotha bombers were joined by Riesen (or ‘Giant’) planes. These aptly named aircraft carried a crew of five and a bomb load of 1,000kg.
Around 1,000 British civilians died as a result of air raids in the First World War. While this is much lower than the number killed in the Second World War, these raids had a psychological effect out of all proportion to the physical harm done.
During one attack, 100,000 rushed to take shelter in the London underground; on following nights, hundreds of thousands more did the same whether or not there was a raid.
This terror and new measures, such as black-outs that now had to be taken, made the British people very aware of their new helplessness.
Importantly, while reporting of news from the battlefield was subject to censorship, there was no such restriction on reporting the raids on London.
And so, the clamour for action grew. As Lloyd George later recalled in his war memoirs, he recognised that call:
“At the slightest rumour of approaching aeroplanes, tubes and tunnels were packed with panic-stricken men, women and children. Every clear night the commons around London were black with refugees from the threatened metropolis.”
He saw that people were not cowed by the attacks, rather they wanted to take the fight to Germany: “It is right, however, to record the fact that the undoubted terror inspired by the death-dealing skies did not swell by a single murmur the demand for peace. It had quite the contrary effect. It angered the population of the stricken towns and led to a fierce demand for reprisals.
That summer, as the raids continued, and defences again failed to stop them, Lloyd George saw that existing air power should be bolstered.
On 13 June, he proposed a large increase in the production of aircraft, even if this meant at the expense of other weaponry. The War Cabinet agreed, and soon it was decided that the Royal Flying Corps should be almost doubled in strength from 108 to 200 squadrons, and that the Royal Naval Air Service should be similarly expanded.
But problems remained with reliance on the two services to play what was a subsidiary role for them. After raids on June 13, two squadrons were withdrawn from Field Marshal Haig’s command to reinforce home defence but, were returned on 6 July, the day before the next big raid. After the raid they were called for again, but Haig only agreed to release one.
By this time both the RFC and the RNAS had 1500 aircraft each but co-operation between them was still poor. Also, anti-aircraft defence was not controlled by either of them, instead was organised by the army.
There had been earlier attempts to co-ordinate air power more effectively and for the Army and Navy to co-operate in this field.
Earlier ineffective responses began with the Derby Committee, set up in 1915 after the Zeppelin raids. The aim of the committee had been to co-ordinate air policy, but the exasperated Lord Derby resigned saying: “It appears quite impossible to bring the two wings closer together…unless they are amalgamated into one service”.
There were calls then for a stronger air policy which prompted a candidate to stand at a by election in 1916 when Noel Pemberton Billing contested the Mile End seat as an independent candidate in 1916. He fought on a platform of support for air power and the creation of a separate air force, unattached to either the British Army or the Royal Navy.
Later an Air Board was formed in 1916. When David Lloyd George became Prime Minister, he put Lord Cowdray at head of committee. This too, failed to improve the supply of aircraft and engines and to make the Army and Navy co-operate effectively.
As the raids carried on, Lloyd George could see that a more radical approach was needed.
Lloyd George responded to this with the appointment of General Jan Smuts to head a committee to investigate.
Formed on July 11, the committee was made up of the Prime Minister, Smuts, together with representatives of the Admiralty, the army general staff, the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces, and other experts as required. They examined, ‘the defensive arrangements for home defence against air raids’ and ‘the existing general organisation for the study and higher direction of aerial operations’.
The part dealing with organization and the higher direction of air operations was delivered to the War Cabinet on August 17. Lloyd George’s biographer John Grigg, tells how its significance was “immense”.
Smuts’ emphatic answer, which he gave with the full support of Lloyd George was: “Unlike artillery, an air fleet can conduct extensive operations far from, and independently of, both Army and Navy. As far as can at present be foreseen, there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use.”
But there were other pressures which made clear in Lloyd George’s mind the need for a new way of organising air power.
While civilians in their hundreds were being killed as German bombs rained down on London; hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were killed as the Passchendaele offensive ground to halt in the mud of Flanders.
As Grigg noted: “David Lloyd George was acutely aware that the Passchendaele offensive was going nowhere but to a great many graves”.
Lloyd George had become Prime Minister because he was expected to prosecute the war more vigorously and effectively. He was determined that the war should be fought without such profligate waste of British life.
So the idea that there might be a new way of achieving victory, ending the bloody stalemate and by-passing the trenches appealed greatly to the Welshman.
Lloyd George could not have failed to be impressed by Smuts when he said: ‘while our Western Front may still be moving forward at a snail’s pace in Belgium and France, the air battle will be far behind on the Rhine, and … may form an important factor in bringing about peace’.
These then were the two main points which Lloyd George seized upon as he pondered how best to use air power.
There was much opposition from both the Admiralty and from the Army, but Lloyd George recalls in his memoirs how there was no firm decision until the middle of October. In that time, he held firm against the opposition from the two existing services.
Once the decision was taken to create a separate air arm and an Air Ministry, the Bill was debated in Parliament. Lloyd George told the House how this power could transform the war: “The heavens are their battlefield. They are the Cavalry of the Clouds. High above the squalor and the mud, so high in the firmament that they are not visible from earth, they fight out the eternal issues of right and wrong. They are struggling there by day, yea and by night in that titanic conflict between the great foes of light and of darkness. They fight the foe high up and they fight low down.”
The bill to establish an Air Ministry was given the royal assent on November 29. The work then began to create the world’s first independent air force in April 1918.
That momentous decision taken by Lloyd George then was driven by the same need faced in later years. The need to protect the skies over our country – as vital now as it was in the Second World War and the years since. It was driven also as a means of delivering power and avoiding the heavy cost in lives that battles on the ground will bring.
His role in creating the RAF was commemorated at Llanystumdwy in January when Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier was joined by the Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sport, Dafydd Elis-Thomas and other distinguished guests at the David Lloyd George museum.
A note about the Author: Martin Wade graduated with a degree in International Politics at Aberystwyth in 1992. Since then he has worked as a journalist and currently also serves as an RAF Reservist.