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Lunchtime Lecture (London): The Smuts Report 1917: A New Perspective

20 June 2024

On Thursday 20th June 2024 at 12pm, Neil Datson will explore the legacy of the Smuts Report. This talk will be hosted in-person at the RAF Museum’s London site and virtually via Crowdcast.
 
Talk Outline
The Air Force Constitution Act passed into law in November 1917 and, in consequence, Britain’s defence was restructured. The arguments for the change were made in the Smuts Report, which was signed off in August. Because the act brought the Royal Air Force into being it is widely held to be a positive reform. However, it can be argued that it was regressive. The Army and the Navy lost their air wings and with them their influence over Britain’s air power.
 
Although Jan Christian Smuts was a general he was a lawyer and politician rather than a soldier. The only military man who he consulted was David Henderson, the Director General of Military Aeronautics, whose concern was with providing sufficient equipment and personnel to the Royal Flying Corps in France in 1917, not the future role of the air arm. Smuts did not attempt to discover why the Army and Navy needed air arms nor why the RFC – which had been intended to serve both – had been split between them in 1914. Both needed aircraft for reconnaissance and surface cooperation but their requirements were too specialised to be satisfied by a joint force. Smuts missed the opportunity to strengthen British arms through the better use of air power.
 
The report has been widely hailed as the work of a visionary man. It was anything but. The ideas in it which prompted his conclusions were not unique to Smuts. On the contrary, they were popular among civilians and could be read almost every day in the press, most clearly and forthrightly in Viscount Northcliffe’s Daily Mail, the nation’s best-selling newspaper. In essence, they were that air power would somehow supersede armies and navies altogether. The subsequent history of warfare has shown them to have been mistaken.
Location
This hybrid lecture will be hosted in-person at the RAF Museum’s London site in the Sunderland Suite. Attendance in-person is free but registration is required via Digitickets.
Livestream
To attend virtually, register via Crowdcast.
 
About Neil Datson
Neil Datson was born in a farmhouse in Kent. He was educated at Lord Williams’s School, Thame and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read Modern History, graduating in 1977. He spent his working life in agriculture, returning to historical study, principally in the Bodleian Library, in his late fifties. His first book, The British Air Power Delusion 1906-1941, was published by Oxford folio in the autumn of 2023. It was initially prompted by popular debate about Germany’s failure to launch Operation Sealion. Learning how little faith the RAF had in air defence prior to 1940 steered him towards more detailed research into the development of British air power.
 
Commentary on The British Air Power Delusion 1906-1941: ‘This important addition to the historiography of British strategy deserves to be widely read.’ David Hobbs, author of The Royal Navy’s Air Service in the Great War (2017) and The Dawn of Carrier Strike (2019).
 
‘An important argument about the over-estimation of air power in the first half of the twentieth century, and a bracing corrective to the usual myth-making.’ Mark Mazower, professor of history, Columbia University.

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