Paternity suits are nothing new but, with the Royal Air Force celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, it’s been suggested in some quarters that its first Chief of Air Staff, Taunton-born Hugh Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard, doesn’t actually deserve the long-applied moniker of “the Father of the RAF”.
Certainly Trenchard himself didn’t think so, despite successfully guiding the RAF through its early years. More recently, some historians have shone the spotlight on South African Lieutenant-General Jan Christiaan Smuts, commissioned by the Government to provide an independent perspective on British defence arrangements.
Indeed, according to the writer Michael Napier, in The Royal Air Force: A Centenary of Operations, it was Smuts’s report on Air Organisation and the Direction of Aerial Operations, published in August 1917, that “became the catalyst for the establishment of an independent Royal Air Force the following year”.
Yet, according to an obituary published by The Times in 1921, someone else deserves, at the very least, to be called – if not the father – “the Maker of the RAF”.
That man is Lieutenant General Sir David Henderson. Born in 1862, this son of a Glasgow shipbuilder and engineer studied engineering under Lord Kelvin at Glasgow University but, before graduating, surprisingly broke with family tradition to embark on a highly successful career in the British Army. Initially serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, by the middle of the Second Boer War, in 1901, he was appointed Director of Military Intelligence by Lord Kitchener.
Sir David was, unlike many of his superiors and peers, fascinated by the achievements of Orville and Wilbur Wright, who had made the first controlled, sustained flight in a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft in December 1903.
Sensing the military potential in aeroplanes, in 1911 – at the age of 49 – this apparently “natural flyer” became the world’s oldest trained pilot. As a result, he was able to contribute significant flying experience to a technical report compiled for a government defence committee considering the future of air power.
The final report promptly led to the formation of the Royal Flying Corps in 1912. The UK’s first operational military airfield subsequently opened on 26 February 1913, at Bloomfield Farm a mile to the north of Montrose, a location selected to help protect the Royal Naval bases at Rosyth, Cromarty and Scapa Flow.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, Sir David – by this time Director-General of Military Aeronautics – essentially became the RFC’s first commander in the field, while another of the Army’s growing number of able-flyers – the aforementioned Hugh Trenchard – remained to build up the RFC’s strength at home.
In 1915, at Sir David’s own request, the two effectively swapped roles; back within the War Office, the Scot found himself in the right place to contribute to Smuts’s report, not least its core argument for creating a separate Third Service, administered by a single air ministry.
Supporters of Sir David’s role in the creation of the RAF insist that it was his experience of the Whitehall government machine that helped persuade Prime Minister David Lloyd George to merge the RFC with the Royal Naval Air Service. Among these supporters is the RAF’s current top man, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier.
As the former Kilmarnock Academy pupil recently told the BBC: “Sir David was here in Whitehall in 1917 and 1918, at those critical stages of the formation of the Royal Air Force, if you like, navigating his way through the bureaucracy.”
Sadly, by early 1918, neither Sir David nor Hugh Trenchard found themselves able to work with the newly appointed President of the Air Council, the newspaper proprietor Lord Rothermere. Both men resigned, ironically on 1 April 1918, the day the RAF – the world’s first independent air force – came into being.
Sir David returned to the Army, later taking part in the peace talks which finally ended with Germany signing a peace treaty on 28 June 1919. He then became head of the new League of Red Cross Societies, based in Geneva; he died at the comparatively early age of 59, in 1921.
Hugh Trenchard, meantime, was ultimately “persuaded” – that is, “ordered” – to return as the Chief of Air Staff in 1919. The man giving the order was another Scot, Glasgow-born William Weir. The newly appointed President of the Air Council was the son of the famous Cathcart-based engineering company which had built so many of the RFC’s aircraft. Both he and the later Secretary of State for Air, Winston Churchill, were convinced Hugh was the right man for the job.
Although initially opposed to the merger of the RFC and RNAS, Hugh Trenchard would ultimately prove both men right, guiding the Royal Air Force through its earliest years. Whether that still makes him the “Father”, however, remains up for debate!
SCOTLAND AND THE RAF
1925: 602 City of Glasgow Squadron established near Renfrew, quickly followed by 603 City of Edinburgh Squadron at RAF Turnhouse, west of the Scottish Capital. Both are Royal Auxiliary Air Force Squadrons, part of the RAF’s equivalent to the Territorial Army. 612 County of Aberdeen Squadron is established in 1937.
1933: Squadron-Leader Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, Marquis of Douglas and Clydesdale, and adjutant Flight Lieutenant David Fowler McIntyre, both of 602 City of Glasgow Squadron, become the first men to fly over the summit of Mount Everest.
1936: A flight training school at Monkton Meadow, established by Douglas-Hamilton and McIntyre, becomes No.8 Flying Training School at the renamed Prestwick Aerodrome. Thanks to its good weather and location, what is now Glasgow Prestwick Airport, becomes the UK end of the “Atlantic Bridge” for air supplies from North America during the Second World War.
1939: On 16 October 1939, Flight Lieutenant Archie McKellar of Blue Section, ‘B’ Flight, 602 City of Glasgow Squadron – alongside members of 603 City of Edinburgh Squadron – seriously damages a Luftwaffe Heinkel He111 which crashes near the village of Humbie, East Lothian – the first German aircraft to be shot down over Britain.
1940: Both Glasgow and Edinburgh RAuxAF squadrons fly south to bolster RAF forces during the Battle of Britain.
1940: on 1 November 1940, former 602 City of Glasgow pilot Flight Lieutenant Archie McKeller, by now leading 605 (County of Warwick) Squadron, is killed in action. It is estimated he shot down at least 21 German planes during the Battle of Britain. However, because he was killed some eight hours after the “nominal” end of the Battle of Britain, this “Forgotton Ace” is not listed on the official roll of honour at the RAF Chapel in Westminster Abbey. He is buried in New Eastwood Cemetery, Thornliebank, East Renfrewshire.
1957: While its history goes back to at least 1939, RAF Saxa Vord, on the most northerly Shetland island of Unst, officially opened as a base for 91 Signals Unit on 27 September 1957. It proved an ideal location for an RAF radar station, providing early warning of Russian aircraft on NATO’s northern flank. Changing political circumstances inspired the base’s closure in April 2006, but £10 million of work is currently being carried out to reactive the base “improving the UK’s sovereign capability at a time of heightened Russian military activity”.
First published in The Scots Magazine, June 2018.