Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Jan Smuts and the Birth of the Royal Air Force

Early this week, the 100th anniversary of the RAF was commemorated. In this article we look at the man most responsible for making that come about.

Field Marshal Jan C. Smuts

Jan Christiaan Smuts was born in 1870 near Riebeeck West in what is now South Africa. He studied law at Christ's College Cambridge but returned to South Africa in 1895 and a few years later was fighting against Britain in the Boer War. During the First World War, Smuts joined on the British side and, rising to the rank of lieutenant general, commanded the Allied forces in East Africa. In January 1917 he returned to Britain as the South African representative at an Imperial War Conference. It was later that year that Germany's daylight bombing raids of London were increasingly highlighting the woeful inadequacies of Britain's air defenses.

In response to the public outcry against the bombing raids, Prime Minister Lloyd George turned to General Smuts. In July 1917, Smuts was asked to turn his mind to the task of quickly solving the air defense problems. He headed a government committee to examine both air defense arrangements and air organization. He was fortunate to have as his closest adviser Sir David Henderson, the first commander of the RFC in France and, since 1915, the director general of Military Aeronautics. In two reports issued in July and August 1917, Smuts recommended an Air Ministry and Air Staff to amalgamate the RFC and the RNAS into a new single Air Service independent of the Army and Navy.

Taken together, the two reports represented a milestone in aviation history, not only for the needs of British air power in the First World War, but also for the future of air power development throughout the World. These recommendations were accepted by the government and the process of amalgamating the two services into an independent Air Service began. General Smuts  reports on British future Air Defense and the move toward a unified Air Service were of paramount significance to the creation of the RAF. [Of course, there was intense  political resistance, inter-service rivalries, institutional opposition to change in the midst of war, and countless other problems to overcome.]

In spite of all these difficulties, the newly independent RAF fought effectively from 1 April 1918 over the Western Front in direct support of the ground forces. It also took the war to Germany and exploited the offensive potential of air power as Smuts had forecast. Smuts returned to support of the Second World War, reaching the rank of Field Marshal before retirement and died, aged 80, in 1950.

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