Hugh Trenchard was a commander of the Royal Flying Corps during World War One and by the end of that war, the first head of the newly formed Royal Air Force. Trenchard took over command of the RFC when it was primarily acting as a spotter for army’s artillery combined with photoreconnaissance. For Trenchard this was not enough. He wanted the RFC to be far more aggressive it its outlook and to take on the German Air Service. The whole approach of Trenchard to aerial warfare effectively changed the corps from a relatively passive role to an aggressive one.
Hugh Trenchard was born on February 3rd 1873 in Taunton, Somerset. Trenchard’s father was an officer in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, while his mother’s father had been a captain in the Royal Navy. With such a background it was not surprising that both parents wanted Trenchard to embark on a military career. Not overly gifted academically, he failed the entrance exams for the Royal Navy but after several attempts passed the exams for a career in the army. Trenchard became a second lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. His first posting was to India in 1893. Here Trenchard made a name for himself as an expert shot (he won the Al-India Rifle Championship in 1894) but he did not conform to the traditional way of life that many young fellow officers led then. Trenchard was seen as dour and somewhat dull and was nicknamed ‘the camel’.
In 1900 Trenchard was posted to South Africa where the Second Boer War was being fought. Here Trenchard was ordered to form a mounted company of the Imperial Yeomanry. The Boers were skilled riders and had poised many problems for the British during the campaign. While in India, Trenchard had developed a reputation as a skilled polo player (in 1896 he clashed with a young Winston Churchill during a match) and it was for this reason that senior commanders believed he was the right man to create this new unit. During a clash with the Boers in October 1900, Trenchard was seriously wounded in the chest and in December he returned to England. In late December he moved to Switzerland to convalesce – it was believed that the fresh air in St Moritz would be good for his damaged left lung.
Wanting to continue his army career, Trenchard returned to South Africa in July 1901. Kitchener, Commander-in-Chief, tasked Trenchard with creating a new corps of mounted infantry. In early 1902, he was appointed commander of the 23rd Mounted Infantry Regiment and by August 1902 he held the rank of brevet major.
In December 1903 Trenchard was posted to Nigeria to quell inter-tribal violence. This he achieved and in 1906, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his work.
In October 1910, Trenchard was posted to Ireland. He found life within the officer’s mess somewhat dull after his experiences in both South Africa and Nigeria. His boredom brought him into conflict with fellow officers and it was during his time in Ireland that Trenchard thought about moving to a number of colonial defence forces. However, it also coincided with the opening of the Central Flying School. A fellow officer who had served with Trenchard in Nigeria (Captain Eustace Loraine) contacted him and advised Trenchard to take up flying – something he did in July 1912. The day before Trenchard arrived for training, Loraine was killed in a flying accident along with Staff Sergeant R H V Wilson on Salisbury Plain.
After a short period of training (just over 60 minutes was spent in the air), Trenchard flew solo on July 31st. He then moved to the Central Flying School. He was not a particularly gifted flyer and he spent more time on administrative work and training procedures. In September 1912, Trenchard was involved in an army exercise whereby he acted as an air observer. It was during this exercise that he started to develop his ideas as to how aeroplanes could support men and weapons on the ground.
Trenchard made his name during World War One. When war was declared in August 1914, Trenchard was officially Officer Commanding the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps. By the time war ended, Trenchard was head of the newly formed Royal Air Force.
As Officer Commanding the Military Wing, one of Trenchard’s tasks was the creation of new squadrons. He initially gave himself a target of 12 but Lord Kitchener increased this to 60. In October 1914, the command structure of the RFC was given a major overhaul. The post of Officer Commanding the Military Wing was dropped in November and Trenchard was given the command of the First Wing, which was made up of 2 and 3 Squadrons. These provided the First Army, commanded by Haig, with reconnaissance photos and provided ‘eyes in the skies’ for the artillery. However, during the Battle of Nueve Chappelle (March 1915) the artillery decided to ignore the information given to them by the First Wing. In June 1915, Trenchard was promoted to colonel.
In summer 1915, General Sir David Henderson, head of the RFC, moved to the War Office to work. He recommended Trenchard for his position and Kitchener gave his approval. On August 25th 1915, Trenchard was appointed Officer Commanding the RFC in the Field with the rank of brigadier-general.
Trenchard determined that the RFC under his command was to be a far more aggressive unit than it had been under Henderson. Whereas the primary roles of the RFC under Henderson had been reconnaissance and artillery directing, Trenchard now expected his pilots to take the fight to the enemy. However, the Germans were equipped with technologically more advanced aeroplanes, especially the Fokkers, and losses within the RFC were high. The number of pilots killed outstripped those who replaced them. The pilots were fulfilling Trenchard’s desire to be more aggressive but paid the price for it.
The RFC could not give the level of support that the British and French armies needed at the start of the Battle of the Somme because of the weather. Reconnaissance from the air was vital but in the days leading up to July 1st, low cloud meant that the RFC could barely fly. If it had been able to do so, it would have almost certainly spotted that German machine gun emplacements along with German barbed wire had not been destroyed by Allied artillery fire. During the initial stages of the battle, Haig had required the RFC to carry out low-level bombing of German positions. This had resulted in many aeroplanes being shot down. Trenchard appealed for more aeroplanes but with little success. What did a great deal to help the RFC was the winter weather from 1916 to 1917, which made flying very difficult. The RFC recuperated during this time. However, the improved weather in March 1917 meant that flying resumed and between March and May 1917, the RFC lost 1270 aeroplanes. What saved the RFC in the summer of 1917 was the introduction of new aeroplanes – the SE5, de Havilland 4 and Bristol Fighters – which were more able to take on the fighters of the German Air Service.
The German bombing of London was to have a major effect on the RFC. Summoned to London to meet David Lloyd George, Trenchard was told to plan for revenge attacks against German cities – Lloyd George specifically named Mannheim. While senior Army figures had argued that the RFC was there to support troops on the ground, Trenchard, pushed by the Prime Minister’s, had to focus on bombing and attacking the German rear. On October 17th 1917, the RFC carried out its first bombing attack on German civilian targets when the Burbach iron foundry was attacked along with railway lines. On October 24th, the RFC flew its first long-range night-time bombing mission. Both of these raids gave the government what they required – huge propaganda material. However, Trenchard was not keen on what it was doing to the RFC – splitting its forces and pursuing what he believed were non-required campaigns. He wanted to concentrate on supporting the Army on the ground.
In December 1917, Trenchard was appointed Chief of the Air Staff in the newly created Air Ministry headed by Lord Rothermere. Major-General John Salmond succeeded him as head of the RFC. Trenchard had a difficult relationship with Rothermere. Trenchard believed that Rothermere was too concerned with political intrigue as opposed to concentrating his efforts on what was happening on the Western Front. This culminated in Trenchard offering his resignation on March 19th 1918 after Rothermere informed the RNAS that they were to receive 4000 new aeroplanes that did not exist. Trenchard’s resignation was accepted on April 10th. He was summoned to Buckingham Palace to explain his decision to the King. Trenchard explained that he found it impossible to work with Rothermere and questioned his competence to be Air Minister. This got back to Lloyd George who interpreted this as an experienced Army officer questioning the basic competence of a newspaper magnate who now headed a new government ministry. On April 25th, Rothermere resigned.
On June 15th 1918, Trenchard was appointed General Officer Commanding the Independent Air Force, later the Royal Air Force. The IAF carried out intensive bombing raids on German airfields, railways and centres of industry. Trenchard was also keen to teach the Americans about the new techniques of flying in combat. He also developed a close relationship with the French Air Force and as the war drew to a close, this association was recognised when Trenchard was appointed commander of the Inter-Allied Independent Air Force in October 1918.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Trenchard found himself in a state of flux. No-one was quite sure if the Royal Air Force was going to be continued and Trenchard’s first task after the war was to quell 5,000 mutineers at Southampton in January 1919. This he did without bloodshed – something that impressed Winston Churchill who was Secretary of State for Air. He persuaded Trenchard to take up the post of Chief of Air Staff on March 31st 1919.
As head of the RAF, Trenchard went about his work with a passionate zeal. He angered the Army Council by creating new officer ranks in the RAF. To emphasise the spilt between the Army and RAF, Trenchard became Air Vice Marshal and then Air Marshal. He founded the RAF’s officer training college at Cranwell and in 1922 a RAF Staff College was created at Andover to train the RAF’s middle ranking officers. Trenchard also absorbed into the RAF the Royal Naval Air Service – much to the anger of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Beatty.
In the 1920’s the RAF was used throughout the British Empire and it was expected that officers in the RAF would do a five-year stint abroad at some time in their career. Trenchard also introduced the RAF to three major universities when he founded the University Air Squadron scheme in 1925 for Oxford, Cambridge and London universities.
Trenchard was engaged in what must have seemed a never ending battle with the Treasury for funding. Between 1927 and 1929 he used funding for the RAF to help win the Schneider Trophy, which included the purchase of two Supermarine S6 aircraft that won the race in 1929.
On January 1st 1927, Trenchard was promoted to Marshal of the RAF. He offered his resignation as Chief of Air Staff in 1928 but this was not accepted and he continued in this post until January 1st 1930. After his resignation, Trenchard was created Baron of Wolfeton.
After retiring from the RAF, Trenchard worked for the Goodyear Tyre Company. In 1931, he was offered the post of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Trenchard initially declined the offer but when offered it for the second time, he accepted. As Commissioner, Trenchard established the police training college at Hendon in 1934. He left the Metropolitan Police in November 1935. In 1936, he became Viscount Trenchard. In the lead up to World War Two, Trenchard offered his services to the government on two occasions but they were not accepted. In particular, Trenchard was dismayed by the seemingly passive approach of the government towards air defence.
Trenchard was offered a number of posts in the early years of the war but he declined them all.
Hugh Trenchard died on February 10th 1956 aged 83.
- The Royal Flying Corps was created in May 1912. During World War One, the Royal Flying Corps became the eyes of the British Army directing…