September 29, 2023

Almost forty years of experience in the Royal Air Force provide Dye with significant operational experience that is greatly enhanced by his gifted descriptive and analytical writing ability.

The dust may just be beginning to settle on copies of Peter Dye’s The Bridge to Airpower: Logistics Support for Royal Flying Corps Operations on the Western Front, 1914-1918, as it was published in 2015. If so, it is time to pull it off the shelf and dust it before reading! Dye’s work not only speaks to timely issues in the return to strategic competition but seamlessly integrates logistics with the operational employment of airpower. In essence, Dye provides a fascinating overview of the complex process by which airplanes evolve into actual airpower. While most airpower scholarship focuses on airpower employment, Dye offers a more complete view by merging the employment with the enablers. This view is all the more impressive because he focuses on the dawn of aviation in World War I. As Dye explains, the First World War’s significance owes much to the fact that “whether the armies moved or not, their supplies were always on the move and none more so than the resources needed to sustain airpower” (162).

Almost forty years of experience in the Royal Air Force provide Dye with significant operational experience that is greatly enhanced by his gift for descriptive and analytical writing. Having introduced the essential historiography of relevant works on logistics and airpower, Dye provides an overview of the Royal Flying Corps’ (RFC) operations in World War I on the Western Front. Next, he details the RFC’s logistics system in an accessible chapter before diving into greater specifics on aircraft and their engines. Dye then returns to airpower history with three case studies that intertwine logistics and airpower employment at the Somme (1916), Arras and Third Ypres (1917), and the return to the war of movement (1918), focusing on Germany’s Ludendorff Offensive and the Allies’ Hundred Days Offensive.

Whether deliberately or not, the book’s use of “bridge” in the title brings up interesting connections to Colin Gray’s notion of the way that a “strategy bridge” serves to link political objectives with military power. Dye takes somewhat of a supplemental approach, adding another bridge between logistics and strategy. In essence, logistics is the art of the strategically possible, in part because of how it connects the economic realm to that of the military.

Blending airpower and logistics seamlessly together leads Dye to make interesting conclusions, such as the idea that achieving air superiority relied just as much on logistics as it did on dogfights. This mission was an “attritional struggle” that relied on the RAF’s “logistic efficiency–and the ability to make good the losses.”

Dye also makes interventions into airpower scholarship dates not related to logistics. Particularly interesting is his challenge to the generally accepted belief that General Hugh Trenchard was too enthusiastic in the pursuit of an unceasing aerial offensive (31). Dye argues that the idea underlying the aerial offensive turned out to be sound. For the British, air superiority had to be maintained past no man’s land into German territory to ensure British observation aircraft could provide photographs and information for artillery spotting and other Army needs (32). He further contends that this support ultimately enabled the “foundation for a return to mobile warfare—and an Allied victory—in enabling the BEF to achieve overwhelming kinetic effect” through its artillery (35). In essence, the RFC devoted its greatest effort to air superiority, but its greatest effect came in the form of the information it provided to artillery units (84).

None of these effects could be achieved without a massive logistical effort, making the RFC the most motorized portion of the British military, with three vehicles supporting every aircraft to enable squadrons to be resupplied. Squadrons could thus reposition relatively quickly, even on the clogged roads of France. When they did, it was a spectacle of  a one-mile-long convoy replete with 26 lorries, tenders, trailers, and motorcycles. Even when the war lacked movement, the squadrons did not, with one shifting location almost every two months of the war. They also could move relatively quickly, with one shifting location after only six hours’ notice.

Outside of this organic motorized capability for squadrons, the key logistical framework consisted of air depots and air parks. The two air depots—located about forty miles from the trenches—served as the entry point of receipt for goods arriving from French ports. Dye characterizes these depots as the decoupling ‘point’ where “supply meets demand” in the supply chain. As he explains, “[u]pstream of this point, the Ministry of Munitions … manage[d] the production of new aircraft as efficiently as possible, while downstream the emphasis was on effectiveness rather than efficiency. In effect, the depots marked the transition from a lean to an agile system.” (154)

The system worked effectively and efficiently enough that replacements could be supplied in as little as three hours in periods of intense activity, although in slower periods replacement could require up to two days. These depots also provided the supplies and repair services that the smaller air parks, located closer to the squadrons, could not.

Unlike the depots which employed thousands, the parks had only about 150 people, and they tended to be located less than ten miles from the squadron while close to a railroad (41). But the end of the railroad line again returns us to the aforementioned motor transport fleet to get the fuel to the aircraft via two- and four-gallon tins. The very thirsty Handley Page 0/400, the RAF’s largest bomber, required 1400 gallons of petrol, which necessitated twenty people spending eight hours laboriously emptying 700 tins into the aircraft. But of course the fuel trucks and all the other vehicles needed fuel, too. Thus a motorized fleet simultaneously enabled even as it paradoxically limited where squadrons could be located.

Having overviewed the supply system in France, Dye explores the twin issues of aircraft and engine production, the latter being even more challenging and requiring double the development time. Both, though, were largely success stories. British aircraft production increased dramatically from 245 per year in 1914 to 6,149 in 1916 to 32,018 in 1918. An increase in engine production given their complexity was perhaps even more impressive, beginning with 99 in 1914 to 5,363 in 1916 and 22,098 in 1918, although the RFC continued to need to purchase almost one third of its engines from overseas while aircraft production dropped substantially to 1% by 1918 (60-61).

Inventory increases in aircraft and engines from 1914-1918.

Once establishing the logistical challenges that the British solved, Dye returns to history to explore how the bridge between airpower and logistics played out on the Western Front.

And the RFC required twice as many replacement engines as aircraft to maintain operational effectiveness. After receiving Sopwith Dolphins in May 1918, for example, No. 87 Squadron had almost a quarter of its missions cut short due to engine problems. The RFC thus went to great lengths to recover aircraft—even under German fire—for their engines more than the aircraft themselves. Those airplanes deemed worthy of repair required less than a month to return to their squadrons. This logistical process of salvaging damaged goods for repair is known as reverse logistics, which brings into relief how logistical systems are not simply characterized by a “one-way flow” of material (154).

Once establishing the logistical challenges that the British solved, Dye returns to history to explore how the bridge between airpower and logistics played out on the Western Front. In 1917, for example, the Germans had the better aircraft, but the British had more of them. Even more importantly, they had the logistic foundation to keep aircraft operational. In other words, the RFC appreciated the need to focus on a broad range of goals including sound training and “sustainability” rather than simply “blindly pursuing the chimera of frontline numbers” (102).

In 1918, the RAF faced a significantly new logistical challenge as movement returned to the Western front. With the Germans advancing in the spring of 1918 during the Ludendorff Offensive, one RFC depot managed to relocate 1600 people and their supplies to a new location in only two days (120). But operational squadrons did not have two days to wait for the depot to relocate. As a result, the system shifted from a “pull” system—in which squadrons drew their supplies from the depots and parks as required—to a “push” system where the RAF distributed supplies it anticipated squadrons needed on airfields in advance, a less efficient approach but one suitable given the fast-shifting situation (120). The problem, as Dye sums up, was less of supply than of “distribution” (121).

While this shift was temporal, an increasing logistical challenge during the war was not so much “capacity” as it was “complexity” (147). One aircraft, for example, could require more than 20,000 individual parts to be maintained in stock; engines required a similar number of parts (98-99). To put this number in perspective, Dye compares the RFC’s efforts to Sears Roebuck, the massive retailer that relied on catalogs the size of large city’s phonebooks to display its products to potential customers. A typical catalog contained about 20,000 different items, whereas the RFC managed around 50,000 by war’s end.

Dye helpfully breaks down this complexity into two categories. Network complexity comprises the elaborate connections that had to be managed to keep the system flowing from raw materials to production to logistical centers to the squadrons themselves. Information complexity, by contrast, consists of planning for lead times, managing records regarding aircraft and engines, and anticipating aircraft employment. Dye estimates that, of the two, information complexity became far more entangled. While network complexity increased by an estimated 25 percent between 1914 and 1918, information complexity morphed into being four hundred times greater (149). Dye seamlessly and intriguingly links the employment of airpower with its enabling logistical support. If one of airpower’s inherent characteristics is its flexibility, it is only flexible if undergirded by an agile and responsive logistics system. German airpower, unlike British airpower, was not. As one despondent German historian explained, “What did it matter if here and there our guns blew up a tank … if our fighter aeroplanes shot down several hostile machines? The enemy filled the gaps in a twinkling of an eye” (137). There are countless accounts of airpower employment for World War I alone, but Dye’s ability to integrate the enablers into the story adds a key dynamic absent from most scholarship.

Heather Venable is an associate professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She is a Research Fellow at West Point’s Modern War Institute and is also the author of How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College, U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Propeller of Handley-Page bomber, Western Front, during World War I. Mechanics checking one of the two propellers of this Handley-Page bomber. It is probable that this is a Handley-Page 0/400, an improved 1918 version of the 0/100 bomber which had been in use since 1916. It had four Rolls Royce engines and was the largest Allied aircraft used during the war. This is one of several photographs of this aircraft attributed to Tom Aitken, which have the word ‘stopped’ in blue pencil on the back. It may have been censored; this is particularly likely if it was the new 0/400 model. Original reads: ‘OFFICIAL PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN ON THE BRITISH WESTERN FRONT IN FRANCE. Handley-Page plane. One of her propellers.’

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend