Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation

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Development of the Air Staff

The Air Force (Constitution) Act of 1917 brought into being two bodies, one a political department, the Air Ministry, and the other a military service, the Royal Air Force.  The former was to be the aerial equivalent of the Admiralty and the War Office as the political controller of the RAF, but unlike them it was also to have responsibility for civil aviation, once the war was over.  In order carry out its primary function it needed a body similar to the Board of Admiralty and the Army Council and it was this Air Council that came into existence first.  Formed on 3 January 1918 its main tasks were to formulate the many regulations and operating procedures needed to run a new ministry and air arm. Whilst Lord Rothermere held political authority as Secretary of State for Air and President of the Air Council, the detailed planning and organisation of the RAF, due to come into effect on 1 April 1918, fell on the new Air Staff led by the Chief of the Air Staff, Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard.

Composed of both naval and army officers, these staff officers despite their previous military backgrounds all had one thing in common, knowledge and experience of the air.  It is opportune at this point to examine the role of the Air Staff.  The idea of a General Staff originated in Prussia in the late 19th century and replaced the previous system of effectively only preparing for war when it had started.  At that time standing armies consisted of independent regiments and militias with little common training or equipment being greatly dependent on the wealth of their commanding officers.  The principle of a General Staff revolutionised the efficiency of warfare by providing a permanent core of officers and commanders whose sole purpose was to plan for the next war.  This would include the supply of personnel, uniforms, equipment and rations as well as strategic and tactical plans.  Therefore, the role of the Air Staff was similar, their being to ensure that the needs of the operational commanders in terms of personnel and equipment were adequately met whilst at the same time looking ahead in an attempt to forestall future problems.

In order to do this the Air Staff was divided into a number of departments each one headed by a member of the Air Council, initially the Air Staff consisted of: -

Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard (CAS)

Major-General (R-Adm) Mark Kerr (DCAS)

Major-General (Cdre) Sir Godfrey Paine (Master-General of Personnel)

Major-General Edward Ellington (Controller-General of Equipment)

The CAS head the department primarily concerned with operations, including intelligence, but left the general running of the department to the DCAS.  The Master-General of Personnel obviously dealt with all matters relating to personnel and the Controller-General of Equipment dealt with all matters relating to the supply and maintenance of aircraft and equipment.  Matters relating to the production of aircraft and the maintenance and provision of building were dealt with by departments headed by civil servants.

Each department was further sub-divided into Directorates or Deputy Directorates, although Deputy Directorates were not necessarily a sub-division of a Directorate.  The title and rank of the heads of these sub-divisions was determined by the status of the unit, i.e. Directors in charge of Directorates, Deputy Directors in charge of Deputy Directorates.  Directors were Brigadier-Generals (Air Commodores from 1 August 1919) and Deputy Directors were Colonels (Group Captains from 1 August 1919).  These sub-divisions were staffed by officers qualified in staff work and were themselves divided along army lines into four classes, which again determined the rank of the holder, 1st Class Lieutenant Colonel (Wing Commander), 2nd Class Majors (Squadron Leader), 3rd Class Captain (Flight Lieutenant) and 4th Class Lieutenant (Flying/Observer Officer).

   This system continued much the same until the early 1960s when the Ministry of Defence replaced the three single service Ministries, but more of that in a subsequent volume.  The departments of the Air Staff underwent some changes, along with the titles of the Air Council members at their head, during the first 20 years but the start of World War 2 and the consequent expansion saw the biggest changes.  Some departments necessitated such large increases in staffing that a Directorate headed by an Air Commodore became too small to handle the demands placed on it.  This brought about the introduction of Director-General headed by an Air Vice-Marshal.  At the other end, new tasks or roles began to develop eventually bringing with it a need for dedicated staff officers to co-ordinate and plan these activities, but until these tasks became established, Assistant Directorates under a Wing Commander, handled them.  Many of these Assistant Directors were often upgraded to Deputy or even full Directorates.

Details of the Departments and Directorates together with listings of officers allocated to them are included in the Members' Area.  Also in the Members' Area are detailed descriptions of the duties and responsibilities of the various posts of which the Directorates are composed.

This page was last updated on 30/09/21

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