How ready for battle was the British Royal Air Force on the eve of World War Two? Who exactly were "the few" to whom we owe so much? What was their fighting capacity and was it equal to the challenge? John James, a historical novelist, was for 32 years a psychologist with the RAF, where he helped train pilots and fighter controllers.
For the reader, James takes the trouble to explain why he set out to write The Paladins. He then looks at the defects of previous works on the Battle of Britain and the interwar years with his opinion being that previous writers have been naïve or romantic or both. He believes previous authors have too readily believed the memoirs of those involved or the minutes of their meetings. His view is that romanticism also infects biographers, who invariably seek heroes or villains. Documents are little better, James says. There is no necessary correlation between what was said at a meeting and what the final minutes record. Files are also extensively "pruned" before being sent to the archives. Draft minutes are not kept and what is pruned is destroyed - as well as any reference to the editing done. So what is an "adequate source"?
James says: "As I read through the literature of the years before the Battle of Britiain, I became more and more doubtful of much of the material as based on `not good` sources. In particular I became suspicious of so much romantic verbiage with never a single table of numbers. I went to look for a source of numbers. It is all very well to talk of God being on the side of the big battalions, but it is scholarly to say how big those battalions were. I found sources which were "good"... Setting out these sources led me to several clear conclusions."
What does he find? The Air Staff in the summer of 1933 decided they would be fighting a major war against a European power, probably Germany, by no later then Spring 1939. A plan, "Plan A", was finalised in November 1933 and would come to fruition in March 1939 with 76 squadrons operating 960 aircraft, 336 of them bombers. More plans, up to "M" were later formalised when the politicians started to panic, but James finds only Plan "A" ever had any reality. Even so, the preferred date for war was 1942, when the four-engine heavy bombers would be ready - as they, in fact, were. Plan "A" contained a task chart and a manning plan.
A comprehensive building plan resulted, building in order training facilities for skilled artisans (among them Frank Whittle, the inventor of the British jet engine), then for aircrew and lastly, for operational squadrons. A new C3I system, based on radar and radio, was in place by late 1937. Existing squadrons were then stripped of pilots to staff flying training schools. New pilots started reaching their new squadrons from the middle of 1938. The tactics they were trained to use were based on those developed during the 1933 air exercises, held specifically for that purpose. "The command system and the manning of the squadrons were completed exactly on time in 1939 for the traditional campaigning season of late summer."
James conclusion is that the few were not little in number and the RAF was not unready for war. "The RAF was not by any means ... `a small and inadequate force for the task it would be called on to perform.` On the contrary, it was designed for one specific battle in a particular confined area. The kind of battle it would be tactically, and the kind and number of units and of aeroplanes that would be necessary to fight it, were clear to commanders seven years before it (the Battle of Britain) opened." Where did James find his facts? It was all there, all along, for any politician, writer or German air attaché to find. He found his data in the publicly sold Air Estimates and in the Air Force Lists that, year after year, lists the number of aircrew, aircraft and squadrons. "These tables are the book... Figures are neutral... they only need common sense to be understood."
It's an interesting book and worth reading if you're interested in the history of the RAF and WW2.