News Article

Trenchard: Father of the RAF

A History and Honour news article

2 Apr 08

As the RAF celebrates its 90th anniversary this week we bring you a series of special feature articles which look at this world-famous organisation's illustrious history. Report by Jarrod Cotter.

Lord Trenchard

Signed portrait of Lord Trenchard wearing full dress uniform circa 1930
[Picture: RAF Museum]

"For nearly 20 years I watched the Army and the Navy... engineer one deliberate attempt after another to destroy the Royal Air Force... time after time Trenchard, and Trenchard alone, saved us." These striking words in tribute to the first Chief of the air Staff (CAS), Lord Trenchard, came from Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris.

Hugh Trenchard was born in Taunton, Somerset, in 1873. Aged 20 he joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers and fought in the Boer War. He was shot through a lung and, for a time, partially paralysed.

Shortly before World War One, and by then a Major, he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and he learned to fly at the age of 39. His supreme organisational and leadership qualities had long been noted and he was appointed Deputy Commandant of the Central Flying School. He was later given command of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on home soil at the time the Air Arm embarked for France in the summer of 1914.

That November he was posted to take command of 1 Wing on the Western Front, and by the following summer he had been appointed General officer Commanding the RFC in France. His leadership was tested to the full during the ensuing years in this post, when the life expectancy of a front-line pilot could at times be just three weeks.

When the RAF was established on 1 April 1918, General Trenchard, as he was by then, was the obvious choice to become the first CAS. However, due to differences with the new Air Minister, Lord Rothermere, his tenure was short. Trenchard resigned, and was appointed CO of the Independent Force, based in France, near Nancy.

Lord Trenchard and Apprentices

MRAF Lord Trenchard chats to Apprentices during a passing out parade at Groves and Henderson Barracks, RAF Halton, September 1930
[Picture: KEC]

With the war over, a new Air Minister in post and Winston Churchill by then Secretary of State for War and Air, it was agreed that difficult times lay ahead for the RAF. An urgent need for massive reductions in defence spending and wholesale demobilisation of manpower made the infant RAF extremely vulnerable to suggestions from the Army and Royal Navy that large-scale savings could be made by abolishing a separate Air Force. Trenchard was deemed to be the best man to guide the service through this period and he once again took up the position as CAS.

The RAF's continued independent existence beyond its first birthday on 1 April 1919 saw the fledgling organisation face many threats from hostile military chiefs in Whitehall. Trenchard needed to quickly establish a deeper understanding of the potentially revolutionary role of air power in war.

If the RAF was to survive it would have to establish its own stature in the overall defence plan. Trenchard set about "making a sound framework on which to build a service which, while giving us now the few essential squadrons, adequately trained and equipped, would be capable of producing whatever time may show to be necessary in the future".

He soon imprinted his own personality on the RAF, not least by establishing the Service's great training institutions - the Cadet College at Cranwell, the Apprentice School at Halton, and the Staff College at Andover. In 1920 he also advocated the first RAF Tournament at Hendon to promote public awareness of the Service and its pride in its high standards and training.

Lord Trenchard and Group Captain 'Johnnie' Johnson

Lord Trenchard with Group Captain 'Johnnie' Johnson at Kastrup, Copenhagen, May 1945
[Picture: Peter Green Collection]

His initiatives also included establishing the Auxiliary Air Force and the University Air Squadrons. It says much for Trenchard's foresight that so much of what he set in place to establish the RAF in its own right continues to this day.

In 1922, an economic review proposed significant cutbacks in public spending. Its findings supported the retention of the RAF and it was decided that it should continue as an independent Service. It had been Lord Trenchard's conviction and strength of character that had safely brought the Service through it's many battles for survival - hardly surprising that he gained the affectionate title 'Father of the Royal Air Force'.

Stepping down as CAS in 1930, he later took up the position of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, mirroring his work for the RAF by introducing many initiatives to raise the Force's status and morale and establishing the Police College at Hendon. In 1935 he joined the United Africa Company, where he served for 17 years in senior management. He was knighted in 1936.

Lord Trenchard's enduring determination for the RAF was wholly justified with the onset of World War Two. He died on 10 February 1953, at the age of 83. On the 21st of that month, he was buried with all due honours in the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

This article by Jarrod Cotter first appeared in the Official Souvenir Issue of the Royal Air Force celebrating 90 years - the story of the RAF as never told before, information for which was gained from numerous sources, especially AP3003 - A Brief History of the Royal Air Force.

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