Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation

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The evolution of an Air Ministry

Armed services are usually the servants of political masters and the British Army and Royal Navy are no exceptions, being responsible to the Admiralty and the War Office respectively.  Therefore before Britain was able to establish an independent air force, there needed to be an appropriate ministry to control it, equal to the Admiralty and War Office.  In this chapter we shall examine how the political side of this story developed.  The Admiralty and War Office as we mentioned earlier, had invariably acted in isolation, each operating within a strict area of expertise with very little need to consult and liaise with each other.  Occasionally joint operations had been carried out involving the landing of troops from the sea, but even here the lines of responsibility were clearly definable.  The mastery of the air and the use of aircraft by the existing armed services brought with it new problems.  The air in which the new machines operated extended over both of the traditional territories of the existing services.  Sailors could now fly over the land and sailors over the sea.

Many traditionalists saw no problems whatsoever, with the Navy using aircraft to protect the fleet and shipping lanes and the Army using them to supplement or replace the cavalry in the reconnaissance role.  Others, meanwhile, particularly those directed involved in aviation, realised the sooner rather than later the traditional boundaries between the Army and Navy would become blared if not disappearing altogether.  Less than two weeks after the formation of the RFC on 13 April 1912 an attempt to provide a central co-ordinating body between the two War Ministries was made.  This took the form of the Air Committee, the establishment of which was approved by the 116th meeting of the Committee of Imperial Defence on 25 April 1912.

The main problem for the RFC was that operational control of each Wing was still the responsibility of the Admiralty and War Office, therefore the role of the Air Committee was defined as being to ‘arbitrate on behalf of the Admiralty and the War Office, at their request’.  Composed of representatives of both the Admiralty and War Office, it met approximately once a month but could only make recommendations, lacking any executive powers.  The Air Committee was never really effective in that its recommendations always had to be ratified by the Board of Admiralty and the Imperial General Staff.  As early as the 121st meeting of the CID (7 January 1913) a suggestion was made that there should be an ‘Air Department’ separate from the Admiralty and the War Office, but the Fist Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was very much against such a move.  It appeared that whilst the two Wings of the RFC continued to be administered by separate bodies and the personnel wore different uniforms they would increasingly act independently.

The next eighteen months before the outbreak of World War 1 saw the continued break away from the RFC of the Naval Wing into the Royal Naval Air Service, a term used freely well before the official formation of such a unit.  1 July 1914 is often quoted as the official formation date of the RNAS, but this was actually the date of an Admiralty circular letter (CW.13964/14) announcing that ‘the RNAS will form part of the Military Branch of the Royal Navy’.  The formation of the RNAS was formalised in Admiralty Weekly Order No 1204/15 dated 29 July 1915, the RFC and the RNAS were now well an truly separated and independent. 

However this independence had been obvious for some time and from the very earliest days each Wing had carried out its own requisitioning and administration.  This eventually led to serious supply problems, particularly in the demand for engines, which at that that time were accounted for separately to airframes.  The RNAS’s development of seaplanes, had put heavy demands on the larger, more powerful engines (150hp+) needed to lift these machines from the sea, thereby leaving the RFC access to only low powered units, usually of less than 100hp.  By 1915 this situation was resulting in losses mounting on the Western Front due to RFC aircraft being seriously under-powered for the demands being made upon them.  Also whilst the RFC had relied on the products of the Royal Aircraft Factory, the RNAS had cast its net further a field, acquiring its aircraft from the private sector, so that by the time the RFC expansion got underway, these alternative sources of supply were already well tapped. The original Air Committee never met after the outbreak, increasing these problems still further.

It was this major conflict in supply and not operational matters that restarted the debate which, eventually resulted in a unified air service.  Possibly the first suggestion that this could be the solution was made in a memo to Churchill on 10 June 1915, probably written by the then Director of the Air Department, Commodore Murray Sueter.  He later expounded his thoughts about a ‘Royal Air Service’ in an article for ‘The Globe’ published on 13 October 1915, a measure which was probably responsible for his eventual ‘exile’ to the Middle East.

A further factor in the eventual unification of Britain’s air arms was the defence of Great Britain.  Traditionally defence of the mainland had been invested in the Army with the Navy responsible for protection of the sea routes around the coast as well as between Britain and the Empire.  The Wings of the RFC, as originally envisaged, were intended to support their parent services in these two functions, however, when the British Expeditionary Force went to France in 1914, the five squadrons of the Military Wing accompanied it, leaving no aircraft to carry out defensive duties in Britain.  As a consequence, the Royal Navy was requested to supply units for home defence duties.  Some of these units were actually sent to the continent in order to conduct offensive operations as a defence against airship attack.  By the end of 1915, this brought further criticism of the RNAS and Admiralty which, were seen by many as conducting operations without consideration of the overall war effort.  Consequently, the War Committee on 10 February 1916 decided that responsibility for Home Defence should revert to the War Office.

The home defence issue once again highlighted the supply problems created by having two separate air services and measures were soon taken to address the situation. Only four days after the War office assumed responsibility for home defence, Lord Curzon, the Lord Privy Seal, proposed an Air Ministry which, he put forward at the 71st War Committee meeting on 15 February 1916.  At this meeting it was decided to establish immediately a Standing Joint Naval and Military Committee to co-ordinate the design and supply of materiel for the two air services to be known as the Joint War Air Committee. 

Once again, however, this committee was to suffer from the problems encountered by its pre-war predecessor, the Air Committee, by not having any executive powers and on 3 April 1916, after only eight sittings, Lord Derby resigned for this very reason.  To many people it was becoming increasingly obvious that the solution was an Air Ministry, ultimately equal in status to the Admiralty and War Office, but this was still some off.  The next step towards this was the first Air Board formed on 15 May 1916 under the chairmanship of Lord Curzon.  Still only an advisory body, it was hoped that the inclusion of a Cabinet Minister (Lord Curzon) and other political figures would give it greater status.    

Five months later, the Air Board published its first report following extensive investigations by the chairman and the two civilian members, Lord Sydenham and Major Baird.  Their findings were extremely critical of the existing situation within the air services and particularly the attitude of the Admiralty in regard to aerial matters.  They found the Military authorities only too willing and able to take part in meetings and to furnish information whilst the Admiralty were unable to attend a majority of the Board’s meetings and refused to furnish any details of the use of aircraft at sea for ‘security’ reasons.  They also found that measures taken to ensure the fair distribution of engines to both the RFC and RNAS were not working satisfactorily. 

One of the major deficiencies noted was the status of the respective heads of the two air services.  Lieutenant-General Sir David Henderson, Director-General of Military Aeronautics, being a member of the Army Council was able to speak and make decisions with authority.  On the other hand Rear-Admiral C L Vaughn Lee, Director of Air Services at the Admiralty, not being a member of the Board of Admiralty needed to submit all Air Board recommendations to the Sea Lords before giving his answer. The Air Board found that whilst leading developments in the air at the beginning of the war, this lead had now been taken by the RFC and the Army and that if anything the Admiralty was stifling naval aviation.  The conclusion of this first report was that the general consensus within the air services themselves was that the Supply Departments of the two air services should be amalgamated under the Air Board.

Following lengthy discussions in the War Committee, and later War Cabinet after the change in government, final decisions were made at the meeting held on 22 December 1916, which if anything further complicated the situation rather than simplify it.  Instead of giving responsibility for design and supply of all aero-engines and airframes to the Air Board, this was invested in the Ministry of Munitions.  A representative of this Ministry was added to the Air Board and the Board itself merely became a third ‘cog’ in the decision making machinery alongside the Admiralty and War Office.  One major effect of the ‘Curzon Report’, however, was the Admiralty’s somewhat reluctant decision to add a Fifth Sea Lord to the Board of Admiralty, responsible solely for aeronautical matters.  At the same time Lord Cowdrey replaced Lord Curzon and the Air Board reconstituted.

This new Air Board attempted to carry out its various functions but the previous problems failed to be fully resolved.  At the same time public pressure was also building for something to be done against the growing number and intensity of German air raids against Britain.  As a result the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, appointed a committee composed of himself and General Jan Smuts, who ultimately undertook the whole work, to look into both problems.  Smuts issued two reports, the first dealing with his suggestions for improving the air defences of the country and the second concentrating on the other aspects of the problem.  Smuts recommended that the solution to both problems lay in a unified Air Ministry, a view strongly supported by Lord Cowdrey, senior RFC and RNAS officers and perhaps surprisingly, Admiral Beatty, C in C Grand Fleet.

Accepted by the War Cabinet on 24 August 1917, the scene was now set for the establishment of a separate Ministry and unified air service.   For the first time in British history an Act of Parliament was passed which, brought about the formation of an armed service.  The Air Force (Constitution) Act of 29 November 1917 provided the first step in setting up of an Air Council to organise and plan the amalgamation of the RFC and RNAS and the transfer of administrative functions from the Admiralty and War Office.  Coming into operation on 3 January 1918 the new Air Council, under Major-General Sir Hugh Trenchard, was confronted with a myriad of problems to solve.  These included the conditions of service of personnel to be transferred to the RAF, the organisational structure, rank structure and the command and disciplinary procedures of RAF personnel attached to the Royal Navy and Army. 

Although he had given full support to Smuts and had fulfilled the role to some extent as President of the Air Board, Lord Cowdrey was not destined to become the first Secretary of State for Air.  On 16 November 1916, a letter was printed in The Times from Lord Northcliffe rejecting the post of Air Minister.  This, not unsurprisingly, rankled Lord Cowdrey who tended his resignation immediately.  As a result the post was offered to Northcliffe’s brother, Lord Rothermere.  Unfortunately Trenchard and Rothermere failed to get on and on 19 March 1918 Trenchard resigned, although the announcement of the fact was delayed until 12 April when Major-General Frederick Sykes was appointed.  However, within a week Lieutenant-General Sir David Henderson, Vice-President of the Air Council had also resigned and Rothermere himself left on the 25th.  Rothermere’s successor was Sir William Weir who had been the Ministry of Munitions Representative on the Air Board.  The stormy start to the life of the new Air Ministry now subsided and it was able to get down to the difficult task of controlling, what had become on the 1st April 1918, the World’s largest and first independent air force, the Royal Air Force.

Composition of the Air Committee

The Secretary of State for War (President)

Commandant, Central Flying School,

Officer Commanding Naval Wing, RFC,

Officer Commanding Military Wing RFC,

Director of the Operations Division, War Staff, Admiralty,

Director of the Air Department, Admiralty,

Director of Military Training, General Staff, War Office,

Director of Artillery, War Office

Director of Fortifications and Works, War Office,

Chairman of the War Office Flying Committee,

Superintendent of the Royal Aircraft Factory,

A Representative of the Treasury

Secretary (Member of the Secretariat of the CID)

Composition of Joint War Air Committee

Lord Derby Chairman
Rear Admiral C L Vaughn Lee  Director of Air Services - Admiralty
Commodore M F Sueter  Superintendent of Aircraft Design - Admiralty
Squadron Commander W Briggs  
Major-General Sir David Henderson Director of Military Aeronautics – War Office
Lieutenant-Colonel E L Ellington  
Advisory Members as required


Composition of first Air Board

Lord Curzon Chairman

Lord Sydenham


Major J L Baird MP


Rear-Admiral F C T Tudor

Third Sea Lord
Rear-Admiral C L Vaughn Lee  Director of Air Services - Admiralty
Lieutenant-General Sir David Henderson Director-General of Military Aeronautics
Major-General W S Brancker Director of Air Organisation, War Office
Sir Paul Harvey Secretary
Commander R M Groves RN Assistant Secretary


Composition of the Second Air Board*

Viscount Cowdrey President

Major J L Baird MP


Commodore G M Paine

Fifth Sea Lord
Lieutenant-General Sir David Henderson Director-General of Military Aeronautics
Sir William Weir Controller of Aeronautical Supplies
Mr P Martin Controller of Petrol Engines
Sir Paul Harvey Secretary

*A detailed description of the duties and composition of the Air Board is available in the Members' Area.

This page was last updated on 30/09/21

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