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The ‘Father of the RAF’

Photo: An RFC D.H.4 day-bomber is armed for its next mission sometime in 1917. The Airco bomber is sharing its airfield with a French-built Nieuport scout, also in British service. (Britain at War Archive/Key Collection)


Britain at War looks at the career of Hugh Montague Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard, the first Chief of the Air Staff and the Father of the Royal Air Force.

Sir Hugh Trenchard, c.1930.

“For nearly 20 years I watched the Army and the Navy… engineer one deliberate attempt after another to destroy the Royal Air Force… time after time Trenchard, and Trenchard alone, saved us.”

These striking words in tribute to the first Chief of the Air Staff, Hugh Montague Trenchard, came from Marshal of the Royal Air Force and wartime leader of RAF Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, and provides an excellent summary of the importance of the one man who so effectively led the RAF throughout its infancy as a service.

Hugh Trenchard was born in Taunton, Somerset, in 1873. Aged 20, barely scrapping through entry requirements for a commission, he joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers and served in India. His time in India saw some service in the Khyber Pass, but Trenchard mostly focused on shooting and sport. He established a polo team for his battalion, an unusual move for an officer in the infantry but one which facilitated his first meeting with Winston Churchill. Trenchard’s social etiquette earned him the nickname ‘Camel’, as he rarely drank nor spoke.

In 1900, Trenchard arrived in South Africa and re-joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers. The Second Boer War saw him use his experience creating a polo team to raise and lead a company of mounted infantry within his battalion. This company was involved in several skirmishes and on 5 October, as part of a wider effort, Trenchard departed Krugersdorp with the intention of drawing the Boers into battle on the plains. However, to do this, Trenchard’s company, and the remainder of the brigade, had to navigate terrain which favoured the enemy. On 9 October the vanguard disturbed a Boer camp, the Boers fled with Trenchard’s company, and his volunteer Australians, pursuing them for several miles.

The Mounted Infantry of the Imperial Yeomanry gallop across one of South Africa’s plains. c.1899.

Unable to lose Trenchard, the Boers led him into a trap. They disappeared into a valley, and when Trenchard scaled the surrounding rise he saw a farmhouse with smoke coming from the chimney. It appeared the Boers thought they had escaped and were now unawares. After positioning his troops on the heights, Trenchard took a patrol towards the house but once the patrol reached the valley floor the Boers opened fire from concealed positions. Trenchard pressed on, reaching the farmhouse and the cover of its walls, but while attempting to open the door he was shot through the chest. His force successfully cleared the area, killing or capturing several fighters, and a critically wounded Trenchard was taken to Krugersdorp.

The wound Trenchard received resulted in the loss of one lung, and, for a time, he was partially paralysed as the bullet had damaged the spine. While recuperating in Switzerland, Trenchard took up bob-sleigh as it did not require much use of his legs. He crashed, but miraculously he survived and it was found that not only had the paralysis gone, but Trenchard could walk unaided. Playing tennis to improve the strength of his remaining lung, and entering competitions to prove his fitness, Trenchard returned to South Africa in July 1901.

A mounted infantryman of the Yeomanry.

His return to South Africa saw Trenchard return to the saddle. Then, after a meeting with the Commander-in-Chief, Kitchener, he was tasked first with reorganising a demoralised mounted company and then with the training of a new corps of mounted infantry.

A secret mission handed to Trenchard in October 1901 saw him mentioned in dispatches. Given the orders by Kitchener, in person, Trenchard led a column of British NCOs, loyalist Boers, and native guides to capture the Boer Government in hiding. The mission failed, Trenchard’s column sustaining several casualties in an ambush, an action which led to the honour being awarded. Later in the conflict, Trenchard defeated Zulu raiders and after peace was declared in May 1902, supervised the surrender of Boer fighters.

Trenchard moved to Nigeria where he quelled the conflict with Ido tribesmen and eventually commanded the Southern Nigeria Regiment, where he surveyed and mapped 10,000 square miles of land centred on Biafra. The award of the Distinguished Service Order came in 1906, but illness saw Trenchard return home, and then to a posting in Londonderry.

While in Ireland, he was encouraged to learn to fly by a friend, and on his return to England, Trenchard did so aged 39, bordering the upper age limit imposed on prospective military pilots, in 1912. He gained his aviator’s certificate with just 64 minutes of flying, and under three weeks tuition – despite being partially blind, a fact Trenchard kept secret.

Shortly before the First World War, by then a major, Trenchard’s supreme organisational and leadership qualities had long been noted and he was appointed Deputy Commandant of the Central Flying School where he qualified as an instructor, but, on account of his less-than-exceptional flying, he was involved in the organisation of training procedures. He was later given command of the Royal Flying Corps on home soil, at the time the air arm embarked for France in the summer of 1914.

Major-General Trenchard, 1919, as Chief of the Air Staff.

Trenchard oversaw the raising of new squadrons for the war effort, and his target of forming 12 squadrons was raised to 60 by Kitchener. To fulfil this, Trenchard commandeered the training school at Brooklands. He was then summoned by Kitchener, who requested an additional battle-ready squadron be assigned to his operations immediately. Tasked with supporting land and naval operations trying to stem the German advance on Antwerp, No. 6 Sqn RFC left for Belgium within just 36 hours.

It is probably no coincidence that, after this quick and impressive deployment, Trenchard was offered command of First Wing in October 1914 as the RFC was reorganised. He accepted, and in November was posted to take command of the wing on the Western Front. His wing was primarily involved in supporting IV Corps, or Indian units, and later General Douglas Haig’s First Army.

Trenchard became involved in Haig’s planning, with reconnaissance completed by his squadrons factored into planning ahead of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and later used bombs to support the attack. These practices were continued for the attacks at Ypres and at Aubers Ridge, and in June 1915 Trenchard was made a colonel.

Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a scouts of 85 Squadron, RAF, at St Omer in June 1918. (Britain at War Archive/Key Collection)

Further promotion was rapid, as in the same summer Trenchard was elevated to brigadier-general, and by March 1916, to major-general. Summer 1915 also saw Trenchard appointed as General Officer Commanding the RFC in France – a post he held until early 1918. His leadership, and his priorities for co-ordination with ground forces and the maintaining of an offensive posture in the air, was tested to the full during the ensuing years when the life expectancy of a frontline pilot could at times be just three weeks.

When the RAF was established on April 1, 1918, General Trenchard, as he was by then, was the obvious choice to become the first Chief of the Air Staff. However, due to differences – mostly regarding Haig, who Trenchard backed – with the new Air Minister, Lord Rothermere, his tenure was short.

Trenchard resigned, and after much personal deliberation he accepted an appointment as CO of the Independent Air Force, based in France, near Nancy. This force was tasked with a campaign of strategic bombing over Germany, beginning its mission in June 1918 when 55 Sqn bombed Coblenz and 99 Sqn attacked rail targets at Thionville.

During the last months of the war, the IAF a total of 550 tons of bombs (for 109 aircraft lost), mostly at night. At least 220 tons of bombs were dropped on German aerodromes in a bid to destroy German aircraft on the ground. Trenchard argued his policy was vindicated by the fact the between 5 June to 11 November 1918, previously frequent attacks on British aerodromes were minimal. Although several targets, such as Bonn, Luxembourg, Wiesbaden, Stuttgart and around 35 other locations, including The Black Forest, were hit, Trenchard mostly used the force to support ground operations and the war ended before the IAF could have a strategic impact on German industry.

Trenchard also worked to develop the abilities of the fledgling American Air Service, and as a result of this improving co-operation the IAF developed to comprise squadrons from other nations, such as France, or Italy, Trenchard remained in post – albeit under the command of Marshal Foch, the supreme commander Allied forces.

With the war over, Trenchard was moved to the RAF’s inactive list, however, he was brought back in by Sir William Robertson. Robertson was a Field Marshal, who used his position as Chief of the Imperial General Staff to steer the war effort. Post-war, Robertson was Commander-in-Chief of Home Forces, and requested Trenchard quell a mutiny in Southampton. Trenchard did so, quickly and peacefully.

Able to carry up to 2,000lb of bombs, the Handley Page O/400 were deployed in force by Trenchard’s IAF, often in raiding groups of 40. At the time, the O/400 was the largest aircraft built in the UK. This example is being inspected by royal visitors. The type was frequently used for official visits, with 7 Sqn aircraft, once being inspected by King Albert I of Belgium and his Queen Consort, Elisabeth of Bavaria. (Britain at War Archive/Key Collection)

By this point there was a new Air Minister in post, Winston Churchill, who was serving as both Secretary of State for War and Air. Churchill’s major preoccupation was the implementation of major cuts to defence spending and the mass demobilisation of all three armed services. It was clear difficult times lay ahead for the fledgling RAF, and the then Chief of the Air Staff, Major-General Frederick Sykes, despite seeing the merits of a large and effective air force for the future, suggested unrealistic proposals.

An urgent need for massive reductions in defence spending and wholesale demobilisation of manpower made the infant RAF extremely vulnerable to suggestions from the Army and Royal Navy that large-scale savings could be made by abolishing a separate Air Force.

Trenchard, who was favoured by Churchill, was deemed to be the best man to guide the service through this period and he once again took up the position as Chief of the Air Staff. Trenchard’s preparatory proposals to re-organise the Air Ministry won approval, and he took up his post on 31 March 1919. The RAF’s independent existence continued, the day after Trenchard taking post being the service’s first birthday, 1 April 1919. Trenchard survived the lethal Spanish Flu, and the RAF survived in the face of threats from hostile military chiefs in Whitehall.

Trenchard’s role was twofold; he undertook the massive reductions necessitated by the post-war climate – a 90% reduction in strength. Yet, at the same time, he installed a new ranking system for officers, within which Trenchard became air vice-marshal, and then, quickly, air marshal, which gave the new service more distinction and further separation from other arms.

The impact of the Ten Year Rule, however, caused difficulty, and Trenchard needed to quickly establish a deeper understanding of the potentially revolutionary role of air power in war – if the RAF was to survive it would have to establish its own stature in the overall defence plan. Trenchard set about “making a sound framework on which to build a service which, while giving us now the few essential squadrons, adequately trained and equipped, would be capable of producing whatever time may show to be necessary in the future”.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Hugh Trenchard, Chief of the Air Staff, inspects apprentices on 11 January 1927 at RAF Halton.

He soon imprinted his own personality on the RAF, not least by establishing the service’s great training institutions – the Cadet College at Cranwell, the Apprentice School at Halton, and the Staff College at Andover. In 1920 he also advocated the first RAF Tournament at Hendon to promote public awareness of the Service and its pride in its high standards and training. His initiatives also included establishing the Auxiliary Air Force and the University Air Squadrons. It says much for Trenchard’s foresight that so much of what he set in place to establish the RAF in its own right continues to this day.

First in the Balfour report of 1921, and then again in the ‘Geddes Axe’ economic review the following year, both proposing significant cutbacks in public spending. The RAF survived, each report supported the retention of the RAF and it was decided that it should continue as an independent service. Despite parliamentary opposition and lobbying from the Admiralty, the RAF also survived the Salisbury Committee of 1923.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Trenchard, speaks to members of the RAF, RAAF and SAAF in North Africa. Having declined several prominent war time roles for varying reasons, Trenchard nevertheless served throughout the Second World War as an unofficial inspector-general, conducting many morale-boosting visits to Allied units.

Trenchard proved consistently that his service was required for the strategic security of Britain and of British interests, and he had also found a new role for the RAF – policing the British Empire. Following the success of air actions in defeating the Dervish State in early 1920, where just 12 aircraft made the difference in what ended as a very quick and cheap to conflict. A year later, the RAF was given control of all British Forces in Iraq, and was also completing air policing duties over India’s North-West Frontier Province.

It had been Lord Trenchard’s conviction and strength of character that found a role for the independent RAF, and had safely brought the service through its many battles for survival – hardly surprising that he gained the affectionate title ‘Father of the Royal Air Force’.

In January 1927, Trenchard became the first Marshal of the Royal Air Force – the highest rank in the RAF – and, in December 1928, oversaw the efforts of Sir Francis Humphrys, and others, in completing the Kabul Airlift – the evacuation of diplomatic staff and their families from Kabul. This became the first large-scale air evacuation in history, seeing 586 rescued from the middle of a civil war by aircraft operating in bitter cold and mountainous terrain – remarkable feat of organisation, piloting skill, foresight, and endurance.

Stepping down as Chief of the Air Staff in 1930, he became the RAF’s first peer in the House of Lords and later took up the position of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, mirroring his work for the RAF by introducing many initiatives to raise the force’s status and morale and establishing the Police College at Hendon. In 1935 he joined the United Africa Company, where he served for 17 years in senior management. He was knighted in 1936. Lord Trenchard’s enduring determination for the RAF was wholly justified with the onset of World War Two. He died on 10 February 1953, aged 83. He was buried with all due honours in the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

The funeral of Marshal of the Royal Air Force, The Viscount Trenchard, in Westminster Abbey. Amongst the pall bearers are; Lord Portal, Lord Douglas, Lord Newall, Lord Tedder and Sir Arthur Harris.

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