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100 years of the RAF, and a very British protest

Today marks the centenary of the Royal Air Force, established for bureaucratic convenience at the start of a financial year in 1918, beaten in the age stakes by the Finnish Air Force, formed on the preceding 6th March, a Force which has higher scoring aces, with implausible names like Hans Wind, but I digress. Whilst I am not one to celebrate bureaucracies (and the RAF is a bureaucracy), it has the merit of having done much to banish tyranny from the world, and has many tales of heroism in its relatively short history, even if for one-fifth of that, it has been part of the Blairmacht.

Today I would like to note one incident in the RAF’s history, which came at the ‘half-way’ mark, when in 1968, (actually on 5th April) after Harold Wilson’s Labour government decided not to commemorate the RAF’s 50th anniversary with a fly-past, and this did not go down well at all. In fact, it went down so badly that one RAF pilot, the heroic Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock, threw away his career and very nearly his freedom in the ‘Tower Bridge incident‘, when, in protest at the lack of a commemoration, in his Hawker Hunter jet, he ‘buzzed’ the Houses of Parliament. Then on the spur of the moment, going down the Thames towards the sea, he flew under the top span of Tower Bridge at around 400 mph, and also ‘beat up’ a few airfields inverted, before landing, getting arrested but avoiding a court martial after being demobilised on health grounds by superiors eager to avoid the publicity of a trial, which is a weird echo of a similar ruse used in Viktor Suvorov’s ‘The Liberators’ when a Soviet Army soldier’s conduct presented a bureaucratic embarrassment that could not be concealed from higher authority. The jet only just missed hitting the top span of Tower Bridge with its tail, so no harm was done, however, it was close, there was a double-decker bus on the bridge at the time, and a cyclist on the bridge ripped his trousers dismounting in haste. Flt-Lt Pollock gallantly offered to pay for the trousers, but the cyclist declined.

It is a tribute to the political culture of the UK that discontent manifested itself in this way, rather than in something like a tanquetazo . The World would also be a better place if more people, like Flt-Lt Pollock, placed acting out of good principles over doing what is needed to maintain one’s position or career, when one is led by disgusting ones.

UPDATE: The Daily Mail have done a full interview with Alan Pollock, here it is.

30 comments to 100 years of the RAF, and a very British protest

  • terence patrick hewett

    When I was an engineering apprentice our storekeeper was an ex-Royal Flying Corps Observer and he used to tell me they used to go up with a wooden beer crate full of mortar bombs – lean out and drop them on the trenches. Which I found as an apprentice very amusing – I still do – it’s the beer crate wot does it.

  • bobby b

    “The World would also be a better place if more people, like Flt-Lt Pollock, placed acting out of good principles over doing what is needed to maintain one’s position or career, when one is led by disgusting ones.”

    The problem is, you’ve just described the American anti-Trump Deep State people, as well as your Remainers, all of whom are convinced that they are doing this very thing through their sabotage.

  • Sam Duncan

    One of my father’s clients in the 1980s had been a founding officer of the RAF. I had the privilege of meeting him on a couple of occasions, at a time when I was in the air cadets myself.

    Excited by the newfangled flying machines, he calulated that his best chance of actually operating one in the middle of WWI was to join the RFC. However, much to his annoyance, he was told that as an engineering graduate he’d be much more useful on the ground. Of course, it was probably that which gave him the opportunity to live to the age of 99, but you could tell it still rankled.

  • Paul Marks

    Good post.

  • Paul Marks

    bobby b – what the RAF man did was the opposite of what the collectivist bureaucrats (in Britain or America) do. What he did was open and brave – what they do is sneaky (behind the scenes sabotage) and cowardly.

    They risk NOTHING – they are very well paid, and they control much private wealth as well.

  • Mr Ed

    bobby b

    all of whom are convinced that they are doing this very thing through their sabotage.

    But they face the insurmountable obstacles of objective truth, reason and morality. That they think themselves good is neither excuse, justification nor mitigation.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Ed – if objective truth, reason and morality were powerful this would be a very different world.

    Let us hope for justice after death – for there is none in this life.

  • bob sykes

    Judging from London, the new breed of Englishmen that is replacing the old breed will not need a coup to seize power. They’ve nearly got it now.

  • Daniel Boone


    More murders and 3 times the rapes – anyone here remotely interested

  • I agree with Paul Marks (April 1, 2018 at 9:45 pm) that there is a difference between openly sacrificing your own career, in a gesture that has no costs to others (except the cyclist’s trousers 🙂 ), versus secretly sabotaging the law in expectation that it will benefit your career.

  • Mr. Potato Head

    I’m a big fan of this story so I remember the man himself was on BBC Radio.
    Here it is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p6n7v about 14 mins in

  • AKM

    Daniel Boone, the problem with quoting crime stats in the UK is that our crime stats have been complete BS since at least the Blair era, if not before. There used to be* blogs written by serving Police officers who explained that they are pressured by their superiors to change the way they report crime based on the what the political class find expedient at that particular time; this included ‘no criming’ in which crimes were simply not reported or changing the way they report crimes. Things got so ridiculous that politicians and pundits started relying on the crime survey instead of police reports, as no one really trusted the police. The result is that we don’t really know what the trends are for crime in the UK, maybe crime in London has increased, or maybe they’ve just changed the way they report crime, the Telegraph doesn’t say. Rightly or not, the article is plainly an attempt to push an agenda for ‘more bobbies on the beat’ and should not be treated as a sober analysis.

    *And maybe still are, but I don’t read them any more.

  • Edward

    God bless the RAF (my grandfather died in its service; something that as the holder of a reserved occupation he didn’t need to do, but did anyway)!

    And God save the Queen! Long to reign over us!

  • Alisa

    Not to negate your main point AKM, but I see no obvious reason to assume that NYPD (or police forces in other big cities for that matter), are not doing something similar.

  • Mr Ed

    The headline crime stat of murders is one where the police forces involved in the UK haven’t yet got round to hiding things, as corpses, being smelly and requiring disposal, tend to be noticed, or the absence of those who have given up the ghost is noticed. However, with other crimes, there are, it seems, a great many in the police all too prepared to fudge the figures, e.g. by disregarding the rapes of under-age girls by the grooming gangs which routinely seem to compromise in the main people who don’t admire Dr David Wood, exactly the sort of attitude that is the opposite of that exemplified by the gallant trouser-splitter Flt-Lt Pollock.

    I really shoud start a petition for Flt-Lt Pollock to get a belated Air Force Cross. That, and a posthumous promotion to Marshal of the Royal Air Force for ACM The Lord Dowding.

  • Mr Ed

    UPDATE: The Daily Mail have done a full interview with Alan Pollock, here it is.

  • John K

    The RAF was formed as part of the panic over Zeppellin raids on Britain. The problem of air defence of Britain was a real one, but there was no particular reason why the formation of an independent air force was the answer, particularly during a war.

    In 1918, Britain had two rather good air forces, the army’s Royal Flying Corps, and the navy’s Royal Naval Air Service.

    The RFC had made great strides in army co-operation, and 1918 saw the introduction of the Sopwith Salamander, an armoured ground attack aircraft, specially designed to support ground troops.

    Meanwhile, the RNAS led the world in the development of aircraft carrier technology. The navy tackled the problems of operating aircraft at sea, and converted a liner into the first proper flat top carrier, HMS Argus, and then constructed first purpose built aircraft carrier, HMS Hermes.

    Sadly, the introduction of the RAF largely brought these developments to a halt. To this day, the Salamander is the only purpose built close support aircraft Britain has ever had. The navy’s carriers had to operate the RAF’s aircraft, a system so unworkable that in 1937 the Fleet Air Arm had to be created.

    The RAF in the 1920s did not want to be subordinate to either the army or navy. Therefore, it had to develop a theory of warfare which was centred on air power, and this is how the doctrine of strategic bombing came about. During World War II the RAF insisted that Bomber Command could defeat Germany by itself, and over 25% of the entire war economy was devoted just to that one part of the RAF. It was lucky the rest of the war economy was enough to win the war, because the Bomber Barons would have happily taken 100% if they could.

    Whether we actually need a seperate air force is a moot point now. The history and institutional inertia of the RAF is such that it is not going anywhere. But it is always worth remembering that this great experiment in independent air power only happened because a shaky government wanted to give the impression that that they were “doing something” about Zeppellin raids. There were plenty of useful things they could have done, creating an entirely new branch of the armed forces in the midst of a war was probably not it.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I saw the name “Suvorov” and was reminded of this. Some people really don’t like him.

  • Patrick Crozier

    JohnK, One thing, by 1918 it wasn’t Zeppelins it was Gotha bombers.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Edward, Me too.

  • John K


    You are right to say that by 1918 the Gotha bombers had taken over from the Zeppelins as the main form of German air raiders over London.

    The Smuts Committee was set up in 1917 to consider the response to the problem of air raids, and led to the formation of the RAF in April 1918.

    The problem of air raids on London was real, and required an integrated response from the RFC, RNAS and anti-aircraft artillery. What does not follow from this was the necessity to create a seperate branch of the armed forces. This inevitably led to the RAF developing its own doctrines of air power, and neglecting those roles which the RFC and RNAS had carried out in co-operation with the army and navy, which the RAF seemed to feel (literally) beneath them.

  • Mr Ed


    That is the same chap. That YT commentator is not someone I could agree with on that topic, that particular post seems to be more based on incredulity than analysis.

    John K,

    You are right that the RAF did become its own beast and therefore a bureaucracy fighting bureaucratic battles with the land and marine forces of the Crown. From what I have read, until late 1940 it had an anxiety about its existence and sought to carve out a role as an alternative ‘Imperial Policeman’, leading to such situations as the use of aerial bombardment in Iraq in the 1920s. There is a persistent rumour about the use of gas, but it appears not to have been used by the RAF.

    The situation of the Fleet Air Arm was absurd with RAF officers flying aircraft on-board Navy ships, with the command and resourcing issues, that was rightly sorted in time for WW2, and Coastal Command, very much the Cinderella arm of the RAF in the run-up to WW2, did work very well with the Navy given what it had as its disposal, although almost no thought seemed to have been given to U-boat interdiction in the run-up to WW2.

    The tension between the RAF and the Navy seemed very evident in the Falklands War with RAF aircraft on Hermes feeling very much second-class and mis-used, from some sources anyway. It is amazing how crap their kit was in terms of radios, navigation systems, radar etc. and what they managed with it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Patrick and Mr Ed, who is the uploader “TIK” in the video to which Patrick gave the link? Is he credible generally?

    I see that in the sidebar to that video, there’s one of a speech Suvorov gave at the U.S. Naval War Academy in 2009, entitled “Who Started WW II?”:

    UT .com/watch?v=SbBnRZoTHFs

  • Mr Ed


    TIK put up a video today describing himself, he is a manager in a business (whixh he does not specify), and is a former gamer. That is not an appeal to a lack of authority, just an observation, snd he is at least keen to learn and recognise his limitations. He appears to me to be self-taught, I find him quite engaging, but no match for an ex-GRU officer like Suvorov.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thanks very much, Mr Ed. Noted. :>)

  • John K

    Mr Ed:

    You are right, the RAF was formed out of a desire to co-ordinate the air defence of South East England, and that is a pretty shaky basis for a new branch of the armed forces. They had to come up with the concept of strategic bombing as a way of fighting a war which only an air force could do. It also led them to neglect those areas where they might be seen as subordinate to another service, such as ground attack planes supporting the army, or carrier based aircraft supporting the navy.

    I have no doubt that roles such as long range maritime patrol should belong to the Royal Navy, as they do with most navies in the world. In Britain it is only an RAF responsibility by a historical quirk. Luckily, Coastal Command and the RN did work well together during the war, but Coastal was always short of aircraft, because the RAF brass preferred to pour resources into Bomber Command.

    You are also right to point out the problems of integrating RAF Harriers into the Royal Navy during the Falklands. The new carriers will operate both Fleet Air Arm and RAF F35Bs, and while great strides have been made in inter-service co-operation since 1982. it is still unsatisfactory, and something that no other nation with aircraft carriers has tried to make work. We shall have to see, and hope for the best.

  • Mr Ed


    If you are lokking for a YT channel on military history commentary, I would recommend Military History Visualised, presented in English by an Austrian chap.

    Or, on a more tangential approch, there is a wider-ranging English commentator called Lindybeige, who tends to comment on the Ancient World as well as Mediæval warfare and other topics.

    I shall endeavour to persuade the Sage to start his own channel.

  • There is a persistent rumour about the use of gas, but it appears not to have been used by the RAF. (Mr Ed, April 5, 2018 at 2:27 pm)

    From everything I have read, you are 100% right that it was never used by the RAF. The persistent rumour is propaganda from the usual suspects then and now. It got started from the fact that circa 1920, just after WWI, in which gas warfare had been introduced by the Germans but then used by us on them, gas warfare was familiar and attitudes against it were not as hard as they later became. Thus its use was indeed discussed. Knowledge of these discussions may have influenced T. E. Lawrence’s sarcastic postscript to his description of an RAF pacification operation against some arabs:

    It’s surprising we don’t use poison gas on such occasions. Bombing is a patchy way to get the women and children.

    (quoted from memory, circa 1921 IIRC). The feeling gradually hardened that to use gas, except in retaliation to others’ use of it, was ugly, and non-use moved gradually from a fact to a principled policy. But the discussions allowed the usual suspects to claim it was in fact done.

    Mussolini used gas in his conquest of Abyssinia.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Muchas gracias, Señor Ed. Will certainly visit!

    I dearly wish you success with the Sage. The Great Frog has spoken to him about it, or at least about doing more presentations, but so far his Cat has protected him.