Book Review: The Paladins


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, known in the UK for his historical novels, was for 32 years a psychologist with the RAF, where he helped train pilots and fighter controllers.

As with John Strawson, writer of the recently reviewed Battle for North Africa, John James takes the trouble to explain why he set out to write The Paladins. He admits this is not often done, but is “especially necessary in a book on a subject which has been treated so many times already. The only acceptable reasons, which are usually taken for granted and are not stated, are that the author thinks that the books which have appeared so far have defects, and that he has material which have not appeared in print before.”

James then tackles the defects of previous works on the Battle of Britain and the interwar years. Previous writers have been naïve or romantic or both. These are “ills to which professional historians are very subject.”

He believes previous authors have too readily believed the memoirs of those involved or the minutes of their meetings. “The war memoirs of any politician or general or scientist or great administrator should always be read as an attempt by this man to say that he himself, by his unaided efforts, won the war, or at least that the war could not have been won without him. The further we get from the war in question, the more likely we are to find a minor figure making this claim, since any who could contradict him are now dead.”

Romanticism also infects biographers, who invariably seek heroes or villains. Although not quite a biography, Buller was undoubtedly the hero of Thomas Pakenham`s The Boer War, while Roberts and Kitchener were the villains and Milner, Percy Fitzpatrick and Beit were the venal warmongers.

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. “The resulting paper stock is suspect,” James asserts.

So what is an “adequate source”? James explains: “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 middle 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.”

Therefore, 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.”

Favourite quote: Inventing radar was easy. Any genius could do it.”  

The Paladins – A social history of the RAF up to the outbreak of WWII.

John James