T. H. Wintringham

War From The Air

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 16, No. 8, August 1934, pp. 497-501
Transcription: Phyll Smith
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

In the years immediately preceding August, 1914, one of the most effective press campaigns ever organised “forced” the British Government into an expansion of the Navy. “We want eight—and we won’t wait” was a successful slogan: the dreadnoughts were built and formed part of the Grand Fleet at Jutland. A similar campaign, on an even wider scale, has been a feature of the past nine months. Its declared aim has been to “double and redouble” the Air Force. It has not succeeded. The Air Force is being increased, but only on a “Five-year Plan which will lead to equality with other powers” at the end of five years. And the Government claims that this “delay” proves the peaceful nature of its policy, its reluctance to enter upon a new armaments race.

The claim is false: the results of belief in it will be tragic. There are many workers and intellectuals who have been deluded by this campaign and the Government’s replies to it into thinking that the National Government is for the present—at any rate—“going slow” in its war preparations. Actually it is going extremely fast. It has created an “Expeditionary Force” of aircraft of very considerable strength; it has reserves of machines, men and engines that are carefully kept secret; and behind the smoke-screen put up by Rothermere and Churchill—the demand to “double and redouble” the squadrons—it is working frantically to keep the technical superiority which it believes can win the next world war.

The Royal Flying Corps at the beginning of 1918 had 85 squadrons on active service between Flanders and Baghdad. The Royal Air Force to-day has 90 squadrons in commission, each of smaller size but of far greater hitting power and performance than those of 1918. This force, which is always “mobilised,” is therefore not on a peace-time level at all it is already on a level comparable only to the highest point reached during the first world war.

But this force is relatively very small—only fifth or sixth in order as compared with the world’s Air Forces? Nonsense! Technical progress is so rapid now that almost every squadron in commission in every Air Force in the world to-day will be obsolescent next year. The effective squadrons of the Royal Air Force—those equipped with machines not yet obsolescent—are stronger than those of any other air force, except the forces of America, and (perhaps) the Soviet Union. To build fifty new squadrons of the R.A.F. next month would be to turn out hundreds of machines that could play little part in a war that began in 1936, and might be of restricted value even in 1935.

Air power depends on performance—speed, endurance, bomb-load, fire-power—and the ability to build rapidly. Twenty squadrons of out-of-date machines could not prevent a modern British day-bomber squadron from doing its work. And a fighter that is 10 miles an hour too slow has a 10 to 1 chance against it.

At Hendon in June, 1931, the “star” exhibit was a “Fury” interceptor fighter. At Hendon in 1933, a Super-Fury appeared. At Hendon in June, 1934, a “modified Fury,” with a new type of engine, was shown which because of its added speed, climb and power of manoeuvre made the older machine obsolete. In 1931 the original “Fury” was still experimental; in 1932 and ’33 squadrons were equipped with it, in 1934 it is easily surpassed not only by its faster namesake, but also by at least two of the new “day-and-night fighters” also on view: the Supermarine (developed from the Schneider Trophy winners) and the Hawker “P.V.” (“private venture”). This inescapable process of rapid change makes it sheer folly to build a big air force unless war is certain within a very few months.

Nations with a weaker manufacturing capacity naturally need a larger air force “in being”; they must rely on their stocks of machines rather than on their power to make new machines. The resources of British industry are well known : those available for immediate building of aircraft in a war situation include a very large proportion of the increasingly powerful Vickers’ combine, great shipbuilding firms such as Swan, Hunter and Wigham-Richardson (who started working on aircraft this year), the Rolls-Royce factories, and the Morris-Wolseley motor car combine. These, together with ordinary aircraft factories, have the machinery ready to reach and exceed the production of aeroplanes reached in Britain during the summer of 1918 (about 2,700 machines a month). Their machinery is not being used to a tenth of its capacity.

Churchill and Rothermere represent that machinery and the capital sunk in it, the investors who have doubled and almost redoubled the value of aircraft company shares,1 the profiteers who need immediate war. Their policy of “doubling and redoubling” is a policy of quick profits for Vickers, Rolls-Royce and the aircraft industry, but a gamble with the resources of British capitalism as a whole. It will not succeed; it is not comparable to the naval “scare” of the other pre-war period. But the policy of Baldwin and the War Staffs is not one of patience and peace. It is one of steadily increased readiness for offensive action, for war from the air.

In 1932 three experimental night bombers were seen at Hendon. One, the Handley-Page machine (then unnamed), was put into production and squadrons were equipped with it in 1933-34. At Hendon this year a “second edition” of this machine appeared, the Handley-Page “Heyford” Mark II. “The speed of this latest version has been considerably increased by certain improvements.” (Aeroplane, June 27, 1934.) The first point in the Government’s policy is to keep up the stream of “latest versions” of this sort, and to have sufficient of them on hand (not necessarily organised in squadrons) to equip an air force as strong as that of 1918 and keep that force going until new machines are built.

The second point in this policy is to be ready to make thousands of the latest machines when necessary, and find trained personnel for them. Here a policy of secret reserves is employed. The Aeroplane, earlier in the year, admitted this policy and referred to “very big reserves” and even “enormous reserves.”

The short service system, plus the newer system of bringing men into the Reserve of Air Force Officers direct without putting them through a short service commission, has built up a very big reserve of well-trained officers who . . . would provide us in a few weeks with a fighting force which would probably entirely alter our place in the scale of Air Power.

The number of officer-pilots and N.C.O.-pilots on the Reserve has never been published. Possibly the powers-that-be do not wish it to be known. . . . We have also an enormous reserve of mechanics because of the number who retire year by year.

Naturally such quantities of pilots and mechanics would he of no use without aeroplanes and armament. Here again we are not so badly off, because . . . the various heads of technical departments have held fairly consistently to a policy of only accepting designs which can be put into mass-production on the outbreak of war.

Some designs which are terribly expensive when made in dozens are such that similar aeroplanes could be turned out like sausages by chop ping up and sticking together steel strips.—(Aeroplane, February 14, 1934.)

That is the second main point of policy ability to turn out aeroplanes “like sausages,” and to man them. The third point is to have a large and increasing stock of engines on hand, because engines take longer to make than aeroplanes. In the increased Air Estimates this year the largest proportionate increase of all was that in the vote for engines and engine spares. The Aeroplane commented on this as “curious” because of the size of the stocks of modern engines already in existence.

These are the main lines of the technical policy. The strategical policy has also been developed rapidly. From Greenland to Singapore advance bases are being explored or equipped. The basis of this strategical policy has been stated by Mr. Baldwin, who is chairman of the Committee of Imperial Defence, in the House of Commons:

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed, whatever people may tell him. The bomber will always get through.

It cannot be done, and there is no expert in Europe who will say that it can. The only defence is in offence, which means that you have got to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy, if you want to save yourselves . . . . — (November 10, 1932.)

Captain F. E. Guest, at one time Secretary of State for Air, has stated that “the policy on either side will obviously be . . . striking at the nerve-centres of the civil population.” Lord Thomson the Labour Government’s Secretary of State for Air, laid it down that “the way to win will be by the ruthless bombing of localities which, in many cases, will be densely populated.” That is the task for which the Royal Air Force is designed and held in readiness.

For many years the main strategical preoccupation has been with the territory between the Himalayas and the Black Sea. In 1928 Mr. C. J. Grey, editor of the Aeroplane, laid down the technical lines of development needed for a war on the Soviet Union2 ; in its main aspects this line has been followed out and even exceeded. He complained for example, that “none of the Russian centres of munition production could be reached by slow-flying night bombers.” And in the “Heyford” Mark II. a night bomber has been developed which has a speed exactly double that of the German “Gothas” used to bomb London in 1917, and faster by 30 miles an hour than the fastest scouts used during the war.

This preoccupation continues: the flight over Everest was only a spectacular “trimming” to the constant work being done, mainly in “Hart” day bombers, investigating the possibilities of offensive action from the North-West frontier and Kashmir. And the aerodrome at Hinaidi, near Baghdad, has accommodation for six squadrons, though only two are needed there; its vast aircraft depot employs nearly a thousand men. It is the base for bombing squadrons working from the Mosul area towards Baku.

But while this preoccupation continues a new one has been added to it: the probable need for “ruthless bombing”—to use the Labour Party version of the policy relied on—of a Soviet Germany. General Weygand’s visit, and the complementary tours by the British Secretary for War and the Staffs along the Flanders frontiers, are not unconnected with the need for advanced landing places and depots for the R.A.F. in such a war. The need has been stated clearly by Major-General Sir C. W. Gwynn:

Our strategic frontier for Home Defence owing to the air threat lies not on the coast, but in the hinterland of Western Europe. For that frontier we must be prepared to fight.—(Morning Post, July 12, 1934.)

This is the crowning absurdity of the “Home Defence” camouflage: the “strategic frontier” for London’s defence is now along the far side of the Ruhr; the “strategic frontier” for the defence of the Ruhr runs through Windsor and Versailles! But the ludicrous nature of the plea must not obscure for us the nature of Major-General Gwynn’s order to us all; we must be prepared to fight for the strategic frontier—because otherwise “no power on earth can protect us . . .”

Major-General Gwynn is not the usual type of Morning Post “dug-out.” He has been Commandant of the Staff College, Camberley: a position once held, I think, by Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff in 1918. His “we must be prepared” is a statement not of desire but of fact; British Imperialism is preparing to use its new expeditionary force to win and hold a frontier “in the hinterland of Western Europe.”

Preparations for war from the air stand out head and shoulders above all other factors as the characteristic main feature of imperialist policy. And “no power on earth can protect us” —except the power which the Major-Generals and statesmen never take into account, until they have to: the power of the revolutionary movement led by the industrial working class.



1. The shares in aviation companies have been a gambler’s market for some time. They vary in price rapidly and widely: de Havillands, for example, had a highest level of 38s. per share in 1933, and a lowest level of 15s. per share. The best way to realise the enormous increase in the value of these shares is to take a mean price for 1933, the middle point between the highest and lowest levels, and compare this price with that ruling to-day. The result is










de Havilland















That is an average increase of over 75 per cent. in a year. Previous years show smaller but still considerable increases.

2. See “Modern Aeroplanes and the Next War,” LABOUR MONTHLY, August, 1930.