Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Failure in High Command

Arthur Gould Lee, No Parachute
Appendix A, The Failure in High Command

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 233 pages
  • Publisher: Time Life Education (June 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809496127
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809496129
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars (9 customer reviews) 
  • Price: $48.80 plus shipping (<-- What I paid. Currently, Amazon lists a different printing for $21.20. This printing now sells for $144.46.)
1. Short review:    (Amazon rating: 5 out of 5 stars -- I love it.)
I love the body of the book. The appendices -- each and every one -- I find fault with.

2. Long review:
2.1. What I liked:  See my first review.

2.2. What I did not like: See my first review.

2.3. Who I think is the audience: Air combat buffs. History buffs.

2.4. Is the book appropriate for children to read?  Yes. No worries.

2.5. On the basis of reading this book, will I buy the author's next book? Yes. Now have Open Cockpit.

2.6. Appendix A..The Failure in High Command:

Detail [AGL's words in quotes. My words in plain type.]:
     "In October 1909 the Secretary of State for War, Mr R. B. Haldane (later Viscount Haldane) appointed a highly qualified civil engineer, Mr Mervyn O'Gorman, as Superintendent of the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. He did this because he believed that aeroplanes could be designed efficiently only under 'scientific' governmental supervision. His belief was to be bitterly paid for in flesh and blood.
     "O'Gorman was an able engineer, but he was also an ambitious empire-builder, who considered that the role of the Factory should be to sponsor a standard government aeroplane. He was in a strong position, for as he had direct access to Haldane, he could outmanoeuvre any officer who disagreed with him. But there were few who did. Most of the senior Royal Flying Corps officers at the War Office regarded the flying machine as merely an aerial extension of cavalry reconnaissance, for which they demanded a stable vehicle which could be flown 'hands off' while the pilot examined the ground, wrote notes and drew maps, and they were satisfied that O'Gorman had an aeroplane that filled the bill.
     "This was the Bleriot (later British) Experimental, which was slow, unmanoeuvrable, heavy on the controls and difficult to arm with a machine-gun, but O'Gorman won authority to develop and standardise it because it was inherently stable, and it was backed by General Henderson, head of the Directorate of Military Aeronautics, and by other senior officers, among them General Sykes and General Sefton Brancker, who as a notably unskillful pilot saw only virtue in a machine that practically piloted itself. None of these officers can escape his share of responsibility for the failure of the High Command to provide the R.F.C. with aeroplanes fit to fly and fight in.
     "Supporting O'Gorman's aim of creating a Government monopoly in the construction of military aeroplanes, the Directorate restricted the growth of private manufacturing, to the extent of equipping the Corps in part from French firms. When war began Britain thus lacked a flourishing aircraft industry, such as existed in France and Germany, and no military aeroplanes were in production stage other than the current Factory B.E. -- the B.E.2c.
     "On O'Gorman's urgent recommendation the Directorate rashly agreed that this machine should be standardised and produced in quantity. Meticulously detailed drawings for its manufacture were prepared by the Factory, and issued to contractors, many of whom had never made any aeroplane part before. In the course of time over twenty firms were engaged in turning out the B.E.2c, 2d and 2e, and B.E.12, but before they were successively in production they were already obsolescent, so swift were advances in the design of aircraft under the spur of war.
     "Every subsequent aircraft produced by the Factory, with the exception of the F.E. pusher-fighters, was a development of the basic, stable B.E., and every one except the last, the S.E.5, was fundamentally inefficient for military use. The B.E.s were by far the most ineffective and vulnerable aeroplanes to fly in France. Their replacement, the cumbersome R.E.8, was little better, and at first even worse, for it was so dangerous that many service pilots refused to fly it. No 52 Squadron, the first to  be equipped with it in France, had so many fatal crashes that the pilots asked, and were allowed, to revert to B.E.2cs. Another R.E.8 squadron, No 59, lost ten machines and crews in one day in 'Bloody April'.
     "It is significant that of Richtofen's 80 British and French victories, 46 were supplied by the Factory -- 29 B.E.s and R.E.8s, 14 F.E.s and 3 S.E.5s. The S.E.5a, a compacted and more manoeuvrable B.E.12, with a powerful engine, proved capable of meeting German fighters on level terms, and it was the Factory's only real success.
     "The inability of the B.E.s to fight, or even to defend themselves, was shown when the Fokker monoplanes began to shoot them down by the dozen, but because the consequent casualties were minute compared with those of the ground battles, they were regarded as of no importance by the War Cabinet, though not by Trenchard, in command of the R.F.C. in the field. But towards the end of 1915 public attention was called to them by Noel Pemberton-Billing, M.P., who described the B.E.s as 'Fokker fodder', and condemned the R.F.C. High Command for failing to supply their pilots with worthy aeroplanes. He was supported by other members of both Commons and Lords, who declared that 'our pilots are being murdered rather than killed'.
     "The Government was forced to order a judicial enquiry, which began in May 1916 under Mr Justice Bailhache. His report, published in November, whitewashed the senior R.F.C. officers responsible, but blamed the supply organisation. O'Gorman became the scapegoat, and a few months later resigned. Pemberton-Billings's accusations were dismissed as extravagant, but they were to be proved to the hilt in 'Bloody April'.
     "Even before then it had become clear that the control of design and production by a bureaucratically run 'Factory' had utterly failed, and that aeroplanes were urgently needed that could fight as well as fly. the R.F.C. pundits turned to the aircraft industry they had so stupidly stifled, only to find that every firm of note was committed by contract to the R.N.A.S.
     "Fortunately for British aviation, the Admiralty had, from the beginning, declined to be tied to the Factory for its machines, and backed by the vigour and long-sightedness of the First Lord, Winston Churchill, had entrusted the aircraft industry in both Britain and France with the production of airframes and engines to meet specific naval requirements. Such firms as Short, Sopwith, Bristol, Airco (de Havilland), Vickers, Rolls-Royce had already turned out much better aeroplanes and engines than any of the Factory's products.
     "Because the R.N.A.S. had contracted for more machines than it could use, a number of types, such as Sopwith two-seaters, were switched to the R.F.C. But because the whole industrial complex for aircraft manufacture had been bedevilled by the War Office's long neglect, and the Factory's jealous embargoes, there were constant delays which kept machines from reaching the Front until they were obsolescent. The pressure was partly eased by the purchase of surplus French aircraft, such as the Spad, Nieuport and Morane monoplane.
     "In spite of these drastic expedients, the senior officers of the R.F.C. Supply Directorate, none of whom had any experience of air combat, except in the most gentlemanly way with carbines and revolvers, still clung to the inherently stable products of the Factory. The episode of the Sopwith Pup was a typical example of this attitude. The Pup, with Admiralty agreement, was offered to the R.F.C. in February 1916, but on O'Gorman's advice preference was given to his so-called fighter, the B.E.12. When the B.E.12 abjectly failed, with the usual loss of life, against the Albatros D-II, the R.F.C. was reduced, in November, to borrowing No 8 Naval Squadron, whose Pups promptly dealt with the D-II. The Pup did not reach the R.F.C. until the R.N.A.S. tired of it at the end of 1916.
     "The Supply Directorate, while decreeing that the Factory, too committed by its rigid organisation for any rapid major changes, should continue to devote its extensive supply facilities to producing proved 'duds', now entered into competition with the R.N.A.S. for the products of the airframe and engine firms of Britain and France. So began the phase of rivalry between War Office and Admiralty for the supply of materials, engines and labor, characterised by indiscriminate purchasing, attempts to corner vital components, and friction between both staffs and subordinates, all of which led inefficiency, delays, and wasteful competition, in which the R.F.C. invariably came off worst.
     "These destructive disputes and manoeuvrings continued until the Royal Air Force was formed in 1918, but the inefficiency did not disappear. To describe the wretched story of the incredible blunders of the air supply organisation during the last year of the was, the disastrous hasty contracts, the faulty co-ordination of effort, the ill-judged control of material and labour, the mass production of untried, defective engines, would run far beyond the capacity of an appendix.
     "Almost the only light that shone during the long period of neglect, incompetence and folly in the supply of aircraft for the R.F.C. was the undismayed courage of those sent out every day to face death in aeroplanes that should have been thrown on the scrap-heap many months before."

2.7. Critique.

     To understand the appendices to No Parachute, I found it necessary to know the history of Arthur Gould Lee. There is not a lot. He flew Sopwith Pups and Camels in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in the Great War. After the war, he stayed in the RAF and rose to the rank of Air Vice-Marshal before he retired in 1946. And he wrote some books. That is a stunning paucity of information about a man who held the rank of Air Vice-Marshal.
     Knowing that little bit, what can I extrapolate about AGL?
     He rose to a position of some prominence -- Air Vice-Marshal -- in a military organization. To me, that says he had a 'Go along, get along' attitude, was perceived as hard working, and was liked by his superiors. He did not upset people. He defended his company, the RAF. In the RAF, he was like Hap Arnold, not like Billy Mitchell.

     In The Forgotten Man and Lies, I wrote 'History is about lies.' My reading of No Parachute confirms that statement.
     AGL edited together the body of No Parachute from letters written to his wife and from his concurrent diary entries. I infer the purposes of the letters was 1) to keep contact with his wife, 2) to inform her about what her husband was doing, and 3) to reassure her. I infer the purpose of the diary entries was to record material that would not reassure her; for example, that his sleep was broken by nightmares that he was flying into a Hell of ground fire. Never was AGL's purposes in these letters or diary entries to present a history of events. For that reason, they form an outstanding personal history of the first war in the air. Without bias or prejudice, we see the truth.
    AGL wrote the appendices when he put the book together some 50 years after he wrote the letters. He wrote not from the position of a fighter pilot struggling to fly his missions and stay alive but from the comfortable position of a retired RAF Air Vice-Marshal. He spent 8 months flying combat with the RFC, and two of those were spent in England where he never flew within gun range of an enemy aircraft. He spent the rest of his 30 years in the RAF in peace-time posts until the Second World War. In the Second World War, he served in staff positions in Greece, Egypt, England, Rumania, and Yugoslavia. During his posting in England, for 3 months he was Acting Air Officer Commanding of No. 12 Group in Fighter Command.
     Which do you think colored the histories of AGL's appendices more: the 8 months he spent flying combat or the 29 years and 4 months he spent in staff positions?

     It occurs to me that you should know something about me to determine my bias.
     I spent a few years in the USAF and rose to the rank of captain. I held both line and staff positions, in that order. In my experience, the mentality of line officers differs from that of staff officers. A lot.
     Line officers think in terms of immediacy: Where do you want me to fly? What do you want me to bomb? A line officer's focus is on his mission, his wingman, and himself and in that order. He looks on all else as a distraction. In short, if it doesn't do the job or bring him home alive, a line officer doesn't waste time thinking about it.
     Staff officers think in terms of the organization: What is my unit's mission? Where do I and my unit fit in the organization's mission? A staff officer takes a broad view. Men and materiel are expendables, but the organization must survive.
     I brought a line officer's mentality to a staff position. I wasn't the only one. I got things done. In fact, my commanding officer once endorsed my Effectiveness Report with the words that "[he] gets things done!"

     AGL criticizes the Royal Aircraft Factory establishment in hindsight. That is easy to do. What is hard to do is exercise competent foresight.
     At the time, no one in England imagined that aircraft improvement would accelerate as much as it did in the Great War. When the war began, few aircraft had the power to carry two men; the number of aircraft types with ceilings greater than 10,000 feet could be counted on the fingers of one hand; no airplane carried a machine gun. When the war ended, two-seaters were numerous and three- and four-seaters were not uncommon; all front-line aircraft had ceilings above 20,000 feet; all fighters carried two machine guns and some two-seaters and bombers carried three. In 1914, front-line aircraft flew 70 miles an hour; in 1918, 120 miles an hour was considered slow. Engines rose from 70 horsepower in 1914 to 400 horsepower in 1918.
     The RFC and the 'Factory' could not foresee this rapid increase. In 1914, everyone everywhere told their soldiers "you'll be home by Christmas." The Kaiser told his troops they would be "home before the leaves fall." The thinking in England was that they would finish the war with the planes they started with and right soon. Even when the war continued into 1915 there was evidence that the planes the RFC had were good enough for the job: the BE-12 downed the Zeppelins that bombed London and the BE-2 performed most of the aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting for the RA. The BE-2 performed well -- as long as it was unopposed in the air. Which was most of the time.
     The error the RFC made was in betting all on a single path into the future. The RNAS encouraged numerous private firms and chose those that met with the requirements of the time. The results were disastrous for the RFC and the 'Factory'. Had the RNAS and its contractors not been there, the result for England might have been defeat.
     It is all too common for nonsense like this to occur. The people in charge think "I'm smart. I can think my way through this." Perhaps that might work if the universe proceeded according to logic. All the evidence is that it does not.
     I have a degree in mathematics. One of the subjects I studied after I finished my schooling was chaos theory. I find chaos theory fascinating. Linear systems are knowable and predictable; they are not recursive and not self-referential. Chaotic systems are knowable but not predictable; they are recursive and self-referential. The best model of technological progress is a chaotic engine. That means it is unpredictable.
     Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan warned that Black Swan events will come. Black Swan events are rare occurrences that have big impacts. They are by definition statistical outliers and unpredictable. Taleb advised us to prepare for Black Swan events.
     How the frell do you prepare for an event you cannot predict? You cannot.
     So what do you do?
     Design for flexibility.
     What does that mean?
     It means you take a many-path approach rather than a single-path approach. Don't bet everything on one hand. Spread your investments around until you find a winner, then pour more into that winner, but still don't bet everything, 'cause the wheel will turn and things will change.
     The mistake of the RFC high command and the 'Factory' was inflexibility. As it always does, the universe punished that mistake with death. The pity was that death fell on those not responsible for the decision.

2.8. Links: 
Open Cockpit
Fly Past 

2.9. Buy the book:
hardback with ugly cover: No Parachute 
hardback with misleading cover: No Parachute (used) 
paperback with pretty cover: No Parachute (used)

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