British Imperial Air Power: A Q&A with Alex M. Spencer

We talked to Alex M. Spencer, the author of British Imperial Air Power: The Royal Air Forces and the Defense of Australia and New Zealand Between the World Wars.

British Imperial Air Power examines the air defense of Australia and New Zealand during the interwar period. It also demonstrates the difficulty of applying new military aviation technology to the defense of the global Empire and provides insight into the nature of the political relationship between the Pacific Dominions and Britain.


Q: What motivated you to take on this project?

Spencer: Distilled down from the book’s introduction:

The inspiration of this work comes out of my interest in the Royal Navy during the interwar period. The terrible loss of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse to waves of Japanese torpedo bombers on December 10, 1941 and the surrender of 84,000 British and Commonwealth troops resulted in many books about the failed “Fleet to Singapore” strategy conceived by Fleet Admiral John Jellicoe in 1919. After my arrival at the National Air and Space Museum, my interests turned to aviation and I wanted to discover why the Royal Air Force was equipped with inadequate aircraft at Singapore and why this topic tended to receive less treatment by historians. After reading the studies about Singapore, I began to wonder if the RAF was making similar efforts, concerning the defense of the Pacific Empire. The answer was yes in an almost forgotten survey by Group Captain Arthur Bettington. Like Jellicoe, Bettington toured the Pacific Dominions in the immediate post World War I period and made recommendations concerning the future of aerial defenses of the Dominions. With century passed since these events, I’ve became more interested in the Royal Air Force during the interwar period and wanted to trace its defense planning for the Empire.


Q: Air combat was relatively novel in WWI, what are some things that may help us understand how different things were at that time?

Spencer: One aspect that I found interesting about aviation technology during World War I was how aircraft made dramatic advances in speed, performance and increased armament. Throughout the war, airmen on both had to invent tactics and strategies for this new technology. Even though there were demonstrations on the potential of aircraft they still remained inadequate to perform the tasks that the airmen envisioned. It was not until the middle of the 1930s when new all metal aircraft with powerful engines and resulted in higher performance and the ability for aircraft to carry heavier payloads. With new specialized designs, aircraft at the opening of the new World War could actually deliver upon the promises made by the air power advocates.


A picture of the book British Imperial Air Power


Q: What are some of the principle conclusions of this project?

Spencer: The RAF designed their interwar air strategies to help maintain the long-established British foreign policy goals of a balance of power on the European continent and protect the vital trade routes throughout the Empire. The air services spent the entire interwar period attempting to create a strategy in the face of considerable economic restrictions.

The RAF answer to its limitations was an air strategy centered on the concept “air mobility.” Successful operations throughout the Middle East from 1919 to 1924 encouraged the Air Ministry assertions that air mobility offered an economical imperial defense. By 1928, air mobility became the cornerstone imperial air defense plans.

By the end of the 1920s, it was clear that the budget cuts were having a detrimental impact upon the operational capabilities of the RAF Even if increased funding were committed to the service it likely would not have improved its condition. Throughout the interwar period, military service remained unpopular and service in the RAF did not appeal to the public. As long as the international situation remained calm, the military economies did not seem detrimental to the security of the Empire.

As Germany, Italy, and Japan began their military preparation and expansions in the 1930s, the effects of economizing and disarmament became evident. The British government understood the danger that these three powers represented and by 1934, a new program of rearmament and expansion of the military industrial infrastructure began as well as renewed efforts to strengthen the bonds of the RAF, RAAF, and the RNZAF.

Central to the story of the Royal Air Force during the Interwar period is how this infant military service had to fight to maintain its independence and its very existence. The Air Force created by the unification of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War faced a battle against the two senior services to reclaim their air assets. The air defense of the Empire gave the RAF justification for its continued independence. The defense of Australian and New Zealand, Britain’s most distant imperial partners, was the most daunting test for the fledgling service. To survive the Empire’s military air services presented themselves as a viable and economical third option in the defense of Britain’s global Empire. The imperial air forces had to navigate the political and economic difficulties of the interwar period that forced their leaders to muddle through. During the war they achieved great victories and suffered humiliating defeats but by the end of the war they were larger and stronger than any prewar strategist could have imagined.


Thank you to Alex for his time! If you would like to know more about the book you can get your own copy or request it from your local library.

You can get 30% off British Imperial Air Power and any other Purdue University Press book by ordering from our website and using the code PURDUE30 at checkout.