I joined the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth as a lecturer in September 1971, the first job I had applied for! At that time I was equally interested in all types of warfare but being at a Naval College one felt the force of destiny. My career as a naval and maritime historian had begun.
One of my first jobs was to lecture to the short career airmen on naval aviation history. As the ‘boy’ I was allocated the lectures no-one else wanted. Among these were the those on the early days of RN flying. My obvious source in the well stocked College library was Stephen Roskill’s relatively recently published NRS volume ‘Documents Relating to the Royal Naval Air Service‘. It soon proved vital for getting things right as the published sources were, basically, wrong. The vital Admiralty letter, reproduced below, apparently setting up the Royal Naval Air Service as a part of the RN proved to be nothing of the sort. It was clear that the RNAS was still the ‘Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps’ with separate cap badge and rank structure. This was less an attempt to set up a Fleet Air Arm than one by the airmen, notably the Director of the Admiralty’s Air Department, Murray Sueter, supported by First Lord Churchill, to create what was almost a third air service. My interest in getting the subtle, and much contested, history of British naval aviation right has never gone away. Roskill reproduces the key letter in full…
Extracts from Admiralty Circular Letter CW.13964/14 of 1 July 1914 ‘Royal Naval Air Service—Organisation* (Adm. 1/8378)[It will be noted that although this letter does once refer to the Royal Naval Air Service ‘forming the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps’ there is a strong suggestion of separatism, particularly in the statement that ‘it will form part of the Military Branch of the Royal Navy’. Presumably Mr. Churchill, who had very recently expressed strong views against separation (See No. 46), failed to notice the implications; or possibly the letter was not submitted to him for approval. Unfortunately the paper carrying the signature of the approving officer has not survived. The actual act of separation from the Royal Flying Corps did not take place until just over a year later— shortly after Churchill had left the Admiralty (See No. 72).] The following regulations are to be substituted for those provisionally issued in Admiralty Circular Letter No. 22 of 15th July 1912. 1 The Royal Naval Air Service will form part of the Military Branch of the Royal Navy, and the various ranks will be added to the list of officers of the Military Branch in Art. 169 of the King’s Regulations. They will not, however, be entitled to assume the charge and command of a ship unless they belong to one of the existing ranks in the Military Branch and are expressly authorised to do so by superior authority.
The Royal Naval Air Service, forming the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, will comprise all naval aircraft and personnel, either for active or reserve service, and will be administered by the Admiralty. It will consist of:— The Air Department, Admiralty. The Central Air Office. The Royal Naval Flying School. The Royal Naval Air Stations. All seaplanes, aeroplanes, airships, seaplane ships, balloons, kites, and any other type of aircraft that may from time to time be employed for naval purposes.
When Naval Air Stations are established at places on the coast where Coast Guard Stations exist, the Coast Guard duties will be taken over and performed by the officers and men of the Royal Naval Air Service. Until the Royal Naval Air Service is more fully developed such ratings as are necessary will be lent from the Coastguard for these duties. All ranks and ratings of the Royal Naval Air Service will be borne on the books of one of H.M. Ships, and will serve under the provisions of the Naval Discipline Act accordingly. The Military Wing and its Reserve, and the Central Flying School will be administered by the War Office. A portion of the staff of the Central Flying School will be drawn from the Naval Wing.
(1) Application for Enrolment Officers serving afloat who desire to join the Royal Naval Air Service should forward their applications through the usual Service channels. Officers of the Royal Marines serving at Headquarters will forward their applications through their Commandant. Officers of the Royal Naval Reserve or the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, when not serving afloat, should forward their applications through the Admiral Commanding Coast Guard and Reserves. Officers on the Retired and Emergency Lists, or on Half-Pay, should communicate direct with the Secretary of the Admiralty. The application must contain the following details:— [Not reproduced]
(2) Application for Enrolment by Civilians Civilians will be eligible for direct entry into the Naval Wing as officers under the terms of the special regulations on the subject. All such officers will be appointed as Flight Sub-Lieutenants, Royal Navy, on entry, but they will be on probation until they have qualified in all respects.
(3) Selection Selections will be made by the Admiralty from time to time from the roster kept by the Air Department. Officers of the Royal Navy on the active list will not be eligible for selection until they have completed one year’s service as commissioned officers, or in the case of warrant officers until they have received confirmation in their rank. Sub-Lieutenants will be required to possess their watch-keeping and engine-room certificates. Officers of the Royal Marines will not be selected until they have completed their courses.
(4) Conditions of Service An officer* appointed to the Royal Naval Air Service, who has obtained or subsequently obtains the airship or aeroplane pilot’s certificate of the Royal Aero Club at his own expense, will be refunded the sum of £75., or such lesser fee as he has been charged for his tuition. Such payment will not be made until after a reasonable period of probation and will depend upon a satisfactory report being received from the Commanding Officer under whom the officer is serving. Should he resign or retire within four years of the date on which he was selected, he will be liable to refund this sum, less one quarter such sum for every completed year of service.
* * *
All applicants who are selected will, as a rule, be required to graduate at one of the Royal Flying Corps Instructional Establishments before being appointed to the Royal Naval Air Service, and if there is no vacancy for them for active service after completing their course they may be placed in the reserve until a vacancy occurs. All officers in the Royal Naval Air Service will be liable to be detailed for any branch of the Service, i.e., Seaplane, Aeroplane, Airship, Seaplane Ship or Kite work, or for constructional or administrative work in connection with aircraft in general, and they may be required to serve either afloat or on shore at home or abroad. In time of war they are liable to serve for either naval or military purposes. Every encouragement will be given to officers to make themselves acquainted with all branches of Air work. As soon as circumstances permit, it will be a general principle that airship officers are taken from those who have served in the other branches of the Royal Naval Air Service. The period of service in the Royal Naval Air Service for officers drawn from the active list, Royal Navy, must be limited by their flying efficiency, and will not, as a general rule according to present experience, exceed a duration of four years, dating from the time of selection. A certain number will, however, be selected to fill the higher posts in the Air Service. Those officers who are not selected for these higher posts will return to their ordinary duties in the Fleet after the above period, but may be reappointed subsequently for further duty in the Air Service at the discretion of the Admiralty. Other officers will pass into the Reserve at the expiration of four years, unless their term of service is extended or renewed. On the completion of one year’s service they may, if considered suitable, be permitted to extend their original engagement to a total of six years; after 4 years’ service to 8 years; and after 6 years’ service to 10 years; or alternatively they may be permitted to renew their engagement on its completion in the ordinary course. Any officer who at any time is found to be unfitted for the duties of the Royal Naval Air Service will be liable to discharge therefrom, and those officers who belong to other branches of the Royal Naval Forces may be required to revert to their ordinary duties. This will not necessarily indicate that any blame is attributable to the officer. Service of Naval Officers in the Royal Naval Air Service (not including the Reserve) will count in all respects as service in a ship of war at sea.
(5) Rank in the Royal Naval Air Service Officers of the Royal Naval Air Service will be graded in the following ranks, and will take rank and command accordingly:— Wing Captain with relative rank of Captain, R.N. Wing Commander with relative rank of Commander, R.N. Squadron Commander (when in command) with relative rank of Lieutenant-Commander. Squadron Commander (when not in command) with relative rank of Lieutenant over 4 years’ seniority (but senior to all Flight Commanders). On attaining 8 years’ seniority in the relative rank of Lieutenant these Officers will rank with Lieutenant-Commanders, R.N. Flight Commander with relative rank of Lieutenant, R.N., over 4 years’ seniority. Flight Lieutenant with relative rank of Sub-Lieutenant, R.N. Warrant Officer, 1st Grade with relative rank of Commissioned Warrant Officer, R.N. Warrant Officer, 2nd Grade with relative rank of Warrant Officer, R.N.