chapter  10
21 Pages

Royal Navy concepts of air power in the maritime environment 1900–1918

It is not entirely unreasonable to suggest that the use of aircraft during the First World War is only partially understood, both in terms of popular and academic histories. 2 The conflict is still deeply associated with notions of ‘knights of the air’, fighting deadly – but chivalric – air battles. David Lloyd George produced perhaps the most hyperbolic contemporary analysis, observing:

High above the squalor and the mud . . . they fight out the eternal issues of right and wrong. . . . They are the knighthood of this War without fear and without reproach. 3

He also referred to those fighting the air war as ‘the cavalry of the clouds’, and his concluding peroration that ‘every flight [was] a romance’ seems to have affected many post-war accounts of air warfare. 3 This is perhaps unsurprising, since for all its rhetoric, Lloyd George’s speech had resonance in a nation appalled by the conditions of the trenches but which – like Germany and France – thrilled to the exploits of its aviators. The idea of combat unsullied by mud, while naïve, appealed, and the publicity granted to ‘ace’ pilots such as Manfred von Richthofen suggested that the populations of the main combatants preferred to think of air warfare as some sort of idealised arena when it was, in fact, as dangerous and unsentimental as the war on the ground. Furthermore, there was a clear fascination with powered flight which inspired public affection for aviators well before war broke out in 1914.