Trenchard, Hugh Montague
, first Viscount Trenchard (18731956), air force officer
, was born at Windsor Lodge, Haines Hill, Taunton, Somerset, on 3 February 1873, the second son and third of six children of Henry Montague Trenchard (18381914), solicitor, and his wife, Georgina Louisa Catherine Tower, daughter of Captain John McDowall Skene RN. Many struggling junior officers have been consoled since 1918 by widespread knowledge of two facts: the father of the Royal Air Force found examinations almost impossible to pass, and he did not even begin to become famous until he was well past forty. He was flatly rejected by both Dartmouth and Woolwich, and only just scraped a passat the third attemptin a far less demanding test for militia candidates: these last resorts were placed in whichever regiment would accept them. His difficulties owed much to inept teaching at both navy and army crammer schools, and much to idleness (except at games and riding), but also owed something to the sudden shock of learning, at the vulnerable age of sixteen, that his father's practice had failed. Bankruptcy was a public disgrace hard to bear for a particularly proud member of an old-established family. He was dismayed, rather than inspired, by the knowledge that he owed the rest of his education to the charity of wiser and richer relatives.
Trenchard was granted a commission in September 1893 as a second lieutenant in the 2nd battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, and posted to join his regiment in India. An inarticulate, prickly young man, socially inept and without money, he was known as the Camel (did not drink, could not speak), and was far from popular until he revealed a rare combination of talents. He mastered any horse assigned to him; played polo skilfully (fending off Winston Churchill vigorously); traded horses profitably; picked winners regularly; shot accurately; andnot leastorganized teams and tournaments efficiently. As his confidence grew, he began to read voraciously in a determined attempt to educate himself, but he never learned to spell or write with any fluency.
A dashing cavalry officer
On the outbreak of the South African War in October 1899 Trenchard was sent to South Africa. Promoted to captain in February 1900, he was told to raise and train a mounted company which brought together a bunch of boisterous, aggressive horsemen, many of them Australian. He had the makings of a fine guerrilla leader until his impetuosity led him into an ambush at Dwarsvlei in western Transvaal in October 1900, where he was severely wounded in the chest and spine, and invalided home to England in December. Although his left lung was permanently damaged, he made a remarkable recovery, thanks to a strong constitution and a self-imposed regime of strenuous winter sports in Switzerland, where a heavy fall shook his spine back into place, enabling him to walk freely once more. He returned to South Africa at his own insistence in May 1901 to resume his career as a dashing cavalry officer, fearless in combat, impatient of all orders but his own, and respectful only to those seniors whom he admired. He was full of high Victorian bravado, and his blunt words, boundless energy, and stern discipline of men under his command commended him to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener.
While on leave in England at the end of the war Trenchard accepted an appointment in October 1903 as assistant commandant of the South Nigeria regiment, first as major, then as lieutenant-colonel. He relished the opportunity to lead his own force of irregular cavalry on expeditions against unpacified tribes in the interior, but he also supervised surveys, road building, and drainage projects, and enhanced his reputation as a man of formidable personality who never hesitated to criticize all and sundry in the bluntest terms. Those few who had the courage to answer back were, of course, the men he subsequently valued. In 1906 he was made a member of the Distinguished Service Order, and appointed to command his regiment in 1908. But he fell seriously ill in 1910 and was again invalided home. On recovering, he rejoined his original regiment, dropped in rank to major, and served in Ulster until 1912.
An indifferent pilot and dangerous tutor
By 1912 Trenchard was rising forty, unmarried, and discontented. He was respected by good officers and men, but too unclubbable (and too poor) for high rank. After almost twenty years of strenuous military service, he was looking about for new opportunities, in or out of uniform, and his colleagueswary of his sharp tonguewere more than willing to help him. One of his few friends advised him to learn to fly and he agreed to give it a go. He was promptly granted three months' leave, and boldly spent the considerable sum of £75 on flying lessons at the Sopwith school, Brooklands. After only two weeks of tuition, including no more than sixty-four minutes in the air, he was granted a pilot's certificate (no. 270) by the Royal Aero Club on 31 July 1912.
The Royal Flying Corps having been formed in May 1912, Trenchard was immediately seconded to it and sent to the Central Flying School at Upavon in Wiltshire, where he met Churchill again (an even worse pilot). Instead of taking a pupil's courseessential if he were to acquire flying skills himself, let alone transmit them to othershis age and military experience saw him appointed to the staff. As assistant commandant, in the rank of lieutenant-colonel, his capacity for effective organization and exacting unquestioned obedience to orders proved of great value to a newly formed school that attracted many would-be free spirits. It was now that his mighty foghorn voice earned him, for the rest of his life, the nickname Boom. Although an indifferent pilot and dangerous tutor, he recognized more quickly than most officers of his age the aeroplane's unlimited military potential.
When war broke out in August 1914 Trenchard took command of Farnborough, Hampshire, where he allegedly found one typewriter, a confidential box with a pair of boots in it, and a lot of unpaid bills. From these small beginnings he began to build an organization capable of supporting a rapidly expanding number of squadrons. As early as November, however, he had escaped from the rear to the front, as an operational commander, and in January 1915 he met General Sir Douglas Haig, who took command of all British forces on the western front from December. Trenchard came to admire Haig without reserve; for his part, Haig declared in 1922 that the First World War had produced only two new things of importance: barbed wire and Trenchard (Boyle, 506).
From 1915 onwards Trenchard pressed hard for the development and quantity production of aircraft of improved design, with more powerful engines and armament, equipped with reliable wireless sets and cameras, and a gadget to permit the accurate dropping of bigger and better-designed bombs. But his main concern, formulated during 1915, was to develop an unflinching spirit of constant aggression among pilots and observers. An opinion that would become an unshakeable doctrine was already forming in his mind. Persistent attack achieved air supremacy, and that supremacy (given aircraft sufficient in quantity and quality) would permit devastating attack upon enemy industrial centres and lines of communication to the fighting fronts. The aeroplane, he famously (and mistakenly) asserted is not a defence against the aeroplane. And the use of parachutes, which could have been as readily available for British as well as German airmen by 1918, was forbidden because they might undermine that spirit of aggression. That ruling, made by non-flying members of the air board, was firmly supported by Trenchard.
In August 1915 Trenchard succeeded Sir David Henderson as head of the Royal Flying Corps in France, with the warm approval of both Haig and Kitchener (secretary of state for war) and was promoted to brigadier-general. From Henderson he inherited Maurice Baringauthor, linguist, diplomatas an essential assistant, who translated his incoherent mutterings into fluent prose. I can't write what I mean, I can't say what I mean, but I expect you to know what I mean (Hyde, 57). More poetically, Baring saw his task as bottling a mountain torrent while yet preserving the tingling fury of its natural state (Letley, 174). They visited all squadrons and depots, listened to countless complaints and suggestions, noticed everything, no matter how carefully concealed, and whenever Trenchard's tactless, overbearing manner caused more than usual offence, Baring poured the necessary oil and subtly rebuked his master. His fluent French also made it possible for Trenchard to establish good relations with the French air service. He did it so well that Marshal Foch described him as an incomparable staff officer.
During 1915, however, the Germans produced a Fokker monoplane equipped with a machine-gun that fired safely through the propeller arc and forced Trenchard's technically inferior aircraft onto the defensive. They became Fokker fodder and it was said in parliament that our pilots are being murdered rather than killed (Lee, 214). Until better machines arrived in service early in 1916, he was reluctantly obliged to accept fewer and shorter reconnaissance patrols, and was unable to foster that continuous co-operation between artillery and aircraft (via wireless and photographs) that he and Haig foresaw as the key to accurate hitting of enemy targets. Although British and German machines were evenly matched in quality from 1916 onwards, and the British increasingly outnumbered their opponents, they suffered four times as many casualties as a result of Trenchard's policy of constant offensive. To him, as to his staff, and most of his senior commanders, wrote A. S. G. Lee, an able pilot who survived long enough to become experienced, for a British aeroplane to be one mile across the trenches was offensive: for it to be ten miles over was more offensive. What really mattered, however, was not the aircraft's position in the sky but the calibre of its pilot and the quality of his machine. The most rashly aggressive pigeon won't get far with a hawk (Lee, 21718).
Creation of a new service
In England, meanwhile, intense competition between the War Office and the Admiralty for recruits (air and ground), training facilities, factory space, designers, and producers of airframes and aero-engines was harming the war effort. In December 1916, for example, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service placed orders for seventy-six varieties of aircraft and fifty-seven of engines (Johns, 1011). Both air arms were weaker than they should have been, and neither gave serious attention to home defence against aerial attack. Several alarmingly successful daylight raids by German bombers during June and July 1917 revealed the inadequacy of this defence and fuelled powerful demands for a united service, with its own ministry, independent of army or navy control, to make efficient use of aviation resources and frame an effective home defence. General Jan Christian Smuts (South African member of the imperial war cabinet) and Henderson, backed by the prime minister, Lloyd George, were largely responsible for the creation of this independent air service in April 1918. Trenchard agreed with the reformers, but thought it best to struggle on with an unsatisfactory situation until the war ended. He thus had good reason for disliking the title father of the Royal Air Force, so often accorded him in later years. If that service had not been created by the heat of battle out of fear of defeat, it would never have emerged out of the chill of calculation when the war to end all war had been won. On the other hand, although he did not father the infant, he certainly deserves credit for protecting it from predators until it was sturdy enough to thrive without anyone's help.
Despite Haig's protests and his own reluctance, Trenchard was appointed chief of the air staff, the first head of the new service, and returned to England in January 1918; he was also knighted (KCB). But the first air minister was Lord Rothermere, younger brother of Lord Northcliffe. These influential newspaper owners, backed by Lloyd George, were vehement opponents of Haig and hoped to procure his dismissal. At that time, Trenchard lacked the political skills, contacts, and even the resolution to counter such men. He simply resigned (bringing Rothermere down with him, to his surprise) in April and sulked for a month. While sitting on a bench in Green Park on 8 May he overheard two naval officers discussing his conduct. It's an outrage, said one. I don't know why the government should pander to a man who threw in his hand at the height of a battle. If I'd my way with Trenchard I'd have him shot. Somewhat chastened, he reluctantly agreed to return to France later that month as head of a small force intended to bomb targets in Germany. Neither John Salmond (his successor as head of the RAF in France) nor the French (who feared reprisals, and thought all resources should be devoted to the battlefield) co-operated willingly. A more gigantic waste of effort and personnel there has never been in any war, declared Trenchard in November 1918 (Hyde, 44). Nevertheless, the few raids that were mounted convinced him that, in any future war with Germany, a systematic campaign of heavy bombing would shatter the morale of its people. Ignoring evidence to the contrary, he was equally convinced that German bombing would not dismay Britons.
A legendary decade
Trenchard was created a baronet in October 1919 and received a handsome cash grant of £10,000. Winston Churchill, minister of war and air, pressed him to resume his post as chief of the air staff, which he did on 15 May, and during the next decade he became a legend. He clearly understood that his new service must be reduced to a shadow of its former strength, and remain small and weak for the foreseeable future, but it could be provided with sound foundations upon which to build a powerful air force, should the need ever arise. A realistic memorandum of September 1919 (converted into a government white paper in December) set out an affordable framework for a service of under 30,000 officers and men. He founded an apprentice school (at Halton, Buckinghamshire) for youths aged fifteen to eighteen who became ground crews, a cadet college (at Cranwell, Lincolnshire) for career officers, and a staff college (at Andover, Hampshire) for future leaders. He set up squadrons at Oxford and Cambridge, introduced short-service commissions and a network of auxiliary squadronsrightly believing that many high-spirited young men were eager to spend some exciting years in cockpits, but were not interested in a subsequent, poorly paid career behind desks.
Trenchard also learned to fight in the Whitehall jungle, with Churchill's intermittent support, against persistent attempts by both the War Office and the Admiralty to divide the RAF between them and end its independent existence. He found in air policing of Britain's empire throughout the Middle East, but especially in Mesopotamia (Iraq), an ideal opportunity to demonstrate that the RAF was both effective and cheap. Control without occupation Sir Samuel Hoare, secretary of state for air in the 1920s, called it (Hoare, 265): an irresistible combination for politicians acutely conscious of Britain's financial weakness. A handful of squadrons, equipped with biplanes left over from the war, armed with light machine-guns and small bombs, and supported only by a small number of armoured cars (converted or built out of the RAF's own meagre budget) were usually able to impose a local peace or separate rivals more swiftly and cheaply than large, expensive garrisons of slow-moving soldiers. Trenchard encouraged annual air displays at Hendon, which proved enormously popular, and also fostered the gradual development of air routes which might one day link every part of the empire. At the end of 1923 he was accepted as a member of the chiefs of staff committeeformally equal to the heads of the navy and the army. In 1925 he argued in favour of making the RAF (rather than the Royal Navy, assisted by a garrison of soldiers) primarily responsible for the defence of Singapore. Even before the fall of that base to Japanese attack in 1942 he regarded his failure to win that argument as the low point of his career.
Unfortunately, the success of air policing seduced Trenchard and his successors into ignoring the need to prepare for possible conflict with nations as technically advanced as Britain. The RAF failed to make adequate progress before 1939 in precisely those fields which the offensive doctrine most required: accurate navigation, in daylight or darkness, in large, properly heated and fully armed aircraft capable of carrying heavy loads of efficient bombs (high explosive or incendiary) a long way and dropping them accurately on well-chosen targets. In 1925, however, Trenchard had been impressed by the Fairey Fox, a two-seat, single-engine biplane day-bomber, equipped with an American Curtiss D-12 engine. The Fox outclassed all other British machines of that time, and Trenchard immediately ordered enough to equip a single squadron. Objectionsfrom industry and politiciansto the use of a foreign engine prevented him from ordering more, but the Fox example did encourage a gradual improvement. In the late 1920s, the RAF's success in Schneider trophy races confirmed the high popular regard first earned at Hendon.
Morale was high, thanks partly to team spirit generated by army and navy opposition, partly also to Trenchard's creation in 1919 of a benevolent fund (which has spent millions of pounds since that date relieving distress among servicemen and their families), but mostly to a widespread conviction that aircraft would play a vital part in any future war. That part, according to Trenchard's doctrine, would be primarily as an offensive bomber force, hitting targets of strategic importance, rather than as a defensive fighter force, successfully resisting attempts by enemy bombers to hit British targets. Little attention was paid to co-operation with either the army or the navy, or to practising realistic aerial combat, or to the creation of a fleet of adequate transport aircraft. The doctrine was carefully articulated, confidently asserted, but insufficiently tested, in theory or practice, during (or for long after) Trenchard's term of office.
Trenchard closely supervised the composition of a detailed account of the air war which reflected his own opinions and evaded all controversial issues. Sir Walter Raleigh, Merton professor of English literature at Oxford, wrote the first volume, but he died in 1922, and H. A. Jones, a civil servant who had been Raleigh's chief research assistant, completed the task. Trenchard had offered it first to Baring and then to T. E. Lawrence. Baring wrote an entertaining survey of their wartime partnership, published in 1920, but Trenchard insisted on removing most references to himself, convincing the author that it would be impossible for him to attempt a serious, independent history of the air service. As for Lawrence, although he greatly admired Trenchard, he had the confidence, personal contacts, and intellectual energy to explore those issuesstrategy, tactics, equipment, training, inter-service quarrels, political interference, and so onand make up his own mind about them. Sadly, he too turned it down. Jones left a valuable record; Lawrence might have produced a great one. Instead, we have only The Mint
, Lawrence's account of recruit life in the early 1920s, which is as vivid and controversial as everything else he wrote.
Trenchard was knighted again (GCB) in January 1924 and became the first marshal of the RAF (equivalent to five-star rank) in 1927. He retired on 31 December 1929 and was made a baron next day. You are too big to be the father of a grown-up child, wrote Lawrence on 18 December. Let the beast go and make his own mistakes. It's going to be a very splendid service, and will always be proud of you (Hyde, 233).
Trenchard was appointed a director of the Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company early in 1930 and later a director of Rhodesian Railways. In March 1931 the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, invited him to succeed Lord Byng as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Morale was held to be low throughout the force, and its organization was clearly in need of reform. He was unwilling to take on a difficult and thankless task, but did so from November, in response to a personal appeal from George V. He had the support of Sir John Anderson, permanent head of the Home Office, and Maurice Drummond, who took on Baring's role as interpreter and writer.
Trenchard made two conditions, revealing his attitude to the new job. One was that he be released at once if his life's work at the Air Ministry seemed in danger; and the other was that he be released as promptly if unrest in India suggested that he would be more useful there in a role for which he considered himself eminently suitedas viceroy.
While awaiting either call, Trenchard submitted to parliament a plan of reform in May 1933 which the government implemented. A police college and forensic laboratory were to be opened at Hendon, and a system of short-service engagements was to be created for a proportion of officers (who, like some young pilots, were assumed to fancy a spell at the sharp end). As in the RAF, he emphasized careful selection, thorough training, and efficient working methods, and recognized a need to widen the social base from which policemen were recruited. He showed an uncommon concern for the overall well-being of the force, rescuing the provident fund from disaster and agitating for both better housing and sporting facilities. He introduced wireless cars and a central control room to deal with the information received.
Unfortunately, Trenchard had long been an enlightened despot and could not change his ways. He issued orders and resented suggestions that he discuss them first. Most senior officers believed he wished to militarize them. He found himself at a loss in dealing with the Police Federation, a powerful and articulate union that had no counterpart in the armed services. By 1934 he was already eager to resign, but he hung on at the king's particular request until July 1935. As a reward he was made a viscount in January 1936. His successorSir Philip Game, his own nomineedid not press forward his reforms and most of them quickly lapsed.
Trenchard joined the board of the United Africa Company (part of the Unilever group), which had interests in Nigeria, his old stamping ground, and served as chairman from 1936 to 1953. After his death, Lord Heyworth recalled that he:
was as interested in the views of a probationer after a first tour as of a senior executive returning from a tour of inspection. He once said that he had no use for people who were not willing to talk brain to brain regardless of status. (The Times, 21 Feb 1956)
Backstairs agitator, privileged spectator
When war broke out in September 1939, Trenchard was sixty-six: young enough, he believed, to play an important part. Throughout the 1930s he had constantly and volubly asserted the primacy of bombers over fighters, as unconvinced as ever that fighters could successfully resist them. The prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, declined Hoare's recommendation in April 1940 that Trenchard be re-appointed chief of the air staff. Churchill offered him command of Britain's home forces in May and a role in military intelligence in November. Although he wisely refused both offers, Trenchard was not inactive. In alliance with John Salmond, he agitated secretly and effectively during 1940 for the replacement of Newall as chief of the air staff and of Dowding as head of Fighter Command.
Trenchard composed a memorandum in May 1941 which completely misjudged the German character. British morale, he believed, was secure under bombardment, but the German nation is peculiarly susceptible to air bombing, being unable to crack jokes while sheltering: an opinion treated with more respect than it deserved by many admirers, among them Portal, who succeeded Newall in October 1940 (Terraine, 2634). He wrote three papers on air power issues, published by the Air Ministry in 1946, in which he insisted that the bomber remained the central instrument of air power, and a strategic air offensive the only proper function of that instrument. Most of his senior disciples eventually lapsed (in practice if not in theory) from the true faith, but not Harris, head of Bomber Command, 19425.
From 1942 onwards Trenchard enjoyed the role of privileged spectator and potential morale booster. He invited himself to every battlefield in the Mediterranean and north-west European theatres, relishing the deferential company of commanders whom he had encouraged in their early daysPark, Coningham, Tedder, and Douglasreceiving firsthand information about the progress of campaigns, and chatting amiably with awed young airmen. After the war, he often spoke in the House of Lords on air power issues, stoutly defending the RAF point of view, as he interpreted it, against admirals and generals. He became a member of the Order of Merit in January 1951, and received honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge and many other tokens of esteem.
A valiant man
In July 1920 Trenchard had married Katherine Isabel Salvin (d
. 1959), daughter of Edward Salvin Bowlby and widow of Captain the Hon. James Boyle (killed in August 1914); Baring was his best man. She had three sons from her first marriage (they all served in the armed forces during the Second World War and two were killed) and two more from her second: Hugh (born in 1921), who was killed in north Africa in 1943; and Thomas (19231987), who succeeded as second viscount.
Trenchard was a big man, surprisingly clumsy for a successful sportsman. Ruggedly handsome, he had a thick mop of unruly dark hair, shaggy eyebrows, a moustache (which in old age gave him the appearance of a friendly walrus), a direct glance, and a famously loud voice. He had been virtually blind in his right eye since 1937, and was totally blind during the last three years of his life, nearly deaf, sadly crippled, but mentally alert until the end. He died in his London home on 10 February 1956, one week after his eighty-third birthday, and received a magnificent funeral in Westminster Abbey on 21 February. Among the pallbearers were some outstanding airmenPortal, Tedder, Harris, and Douglaswhose careers owed much to his support. The RAF ensign flew above the abbey while the coffin containing his ashes was conveyed from the Air Ministry's assembly hall in Whitehall Gardens (where it had lain in state) and throughout the service. Overhead flew the RAF's latest strategic bomber, appropriately named Valiant.
If Trenchard had not taken up flying when youth had already passed him the Royal Air Force would not have been the bulwark of Britain that it was in either world war (The Times
, 11 Feb 1956; 22 Feb 1956). A bronze statue made by William McMillan and erected in Embankment Gardens, outside the Ministry of Defence, was unveiled by prime minister Harold Macmillan on 19 July 1961 and dedicated by the archbishop of Canterbury. Lord Tedder, a great airman whom Trenchard had always admired, laid a wreath on behalf of all former members of the RAF. A plaque has commemorated his birthplace since September 1973.
A. Boyle, Trenchard: man of vision (1962) · H. M. Hyde, British air policy between the wars, 19181939 (1976) · G. Lyall, MRAF Lord Trenchard, The war lords, ed. M. Carver (1976), 17681 · M. Baring, RFC headquarters (1920) · Viscount Templewood (Sir Samuel Hoare), Empire of the air: the advent of the air age, 19221929 (1957) · W. Raleigh and H. A. Jones, The war in the air, 6 vols. (192237) · H. Probert, High commanders of the Royal Air Force (1991) · J. Terraine, The right of the line: the Royal Air Force in the European war (1984) · A. S. G. Lee, No parachute: a fighter pilot in World War I (1968) · E. Letley, Maurice Baring: a citizen of Europe (1991) · M. Smith, British air strategy between the wars (1984) · A. Morris, First of the many: the story of the independent force, RAF (1968) · C. G. Grey, On the departing chief, The Aeroplane, 37 (1929), 140216 · R. Johns, Trenchard memorial lecture, RUSI Journal, 142 (Oct 1997), 1016 · H. A. Taylor, Fairey aircraft since 1915 (1974) · The Times (11 Feb 1956) · Lord Trenchard, Three papers on air power, Air Ministry Publication, 229 (1946)
Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, department of research and information services, corresp. and papers | BL OIOC, letters to Sir W. R. Lawrence, MS Eur. F 143
BL OIOC, letters to Lord Reading, MSS Eur. E 238, F 118
Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Simon
Bodl. RH, corresp. with Lord Lugard
CUL, corresp. with Samuel Hoare
King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart
Parl. Arch., corresp. with Herbert Samuel
PRONI, letters to Lord Londonderry
U. Glas., Archives and Business Records Centre, letters to Lord Rowallan
BFINA, news footage
F. Dodd, charcoal and watercolour drawing, 1917, IWM · W. Orpen, oils, 1917, IWM [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, two photographs, 191932, NPG · O. Birley, oils, c.1926, Royal Air Force Club, London · B. Partridge, chalk caricature, 1927, NPG · H. Green, pencil drawing, 1930, Royal Air Force Staff College, Bracknell, Berkshire · E. Verpilleux, oils, 1936, Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, Lincolnshire · A. R. Thomson, oils, c.1943, Royal Air Force Staff College, Bracknell, Berkshire · F. Beresford, oils, Royal Air Force Bentley Priory, Stanmore, Middlesex, HQ 11 Group · W. McMillan, bronze statue, Embankment Gardens, London; plaster statuette and bronze cast, Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon · photograph, repro. in Boyle, Trenchard, facing p. 609
Wealth at death
£3576 12s. 11d.: probate, 11 May 1956, CGPLA Eng. & Wales