Hugh Trenchard

Hugh Trenchard

Hugh Trenchard was a commander of the Royal Flying Corps during World War One and the first head of the Royal Air Force, which was created towards the end of the war.

When Trenchard first took over the RFC, it was primarily used to gain intelligence - acting as the British Army’s eyes - but Trenchard pushed the service to become a military division in its own right and take on the German Air Service. He is therefore credited with having shaped the RFC into the Royal Air Force.

Trenchard was born in 1873 in Taunton, Somerset to a family with a strong military background. Despite failing his entrance exams for the Royal Navy, he eventually embarked upon a military career with the army and became a second lieutenant with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. It was during his first posting in India in 1893 when Trenchard first made a name for himself as an expert shot, but his dour attitude still earned him the nickname ‘the camel’.

In 1900, Trenchard was posted to South Africa during the Second Boer War and was ordered to form a mounted company of the Imperial Yeomanry due to his reputation as a skilled rider. However, during a clash with the Boers in October, he was seriously wounded and had to return to England in December.

Wanting to continue with his career, Trenchard returned to South Africa in July 1901 and was taken by Commander-in-Chief Lord Kitchener with creating a new corps of mounted infantry. Early the following year, Trenchard was appointed commander of the 23rd Mounted Infantry Regiment and by August he had earned the rank of brevet major.

After quelling violence in Nigeria and earning himself a Distinguished Service Order (DSO), Trenchard was posted to Ireland in October 1910 but found it dull. Thankfully, a fellow officer who had served with him contacted him and advised him to join a the new Central Flying School, which he did in July 1912.

After a short period of training - spending just 60 minutes in the air - Trenchard flew solo on 31st July and moved to the flying school. Although not a particularly gifted flyer, he was involved in an army exercise in September 1912 where he was acting as an air observer. It was this exercise that prompted him to develop ideas of planes being used to support men and weapons on the ground.

World War One was where Trenchard really made his name. When war was declared in August 1914, Trenchard was an Officer Commanding the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, but by the time it was over he was the head of the newly formed Royal Air Force.

In his initial role, Trenchard was tasked with creating new squadrons. His original target was 12 but Kitchener increased this to 60. Later that year, the command structure was changed and Trenchard was given command of the First Wing, which had 2 and 3 Squadrons. Working alongside General Haig - commander of the First Army - Trenchard was able to use his squadrons to provide reconnaissance photos and seek artillery locations from the skies, although sadly (as in the Battle of Nueve Chapelle) this wasn’t always used. In spite of this, Trenchard was promoted in June 1915 to colonel.

This post wasn’t to last long - in summer 1915 General Sir David Henderson, head of the RFC, was moved to the War Office and recommended that Trenchard take up his old position. Kitchener agreed and on 25th August 1915 Trenchard was appointed Officer Commanding the RFC in the Field with the rank of brigadier-general.

Trenchard was determined that the RFC under his command would be more aggressive and he decided that his pilots would now be sent out to engage the enemy, rather than just to photograph or investigate the enemy troops on the ground. However, at this stage the Germans were equipped with far more technologically advanced aeroplanes, including the Fokkers, and this meant initial losses were high.

The losses continued as the Battle of the Somme began. The RFC had been required to support the British and French armies by undertaking reconnaissance from the air but low cloud meant they were mostly unable to fly. However, Haig ordered that the RFC help during the early stages of battle by carrying out low-level bombing of Germans positions, but this resulted in many planes being shot down. However, the fact that the weather remained poor for much of the rest of the year and into 1917 gave the RFC time to rebuild and replace their pilots, so flying was able to resume in full force when weather cleared in March 1917.

Unfortunately, between March and May the RFC lost 1,270 plane but a number of new aeroplanes were in development, and by the summer of 1917 the SE5, de Havilland 4 and Bristol Fighters were ready to take on the German planes.

Another event that had a major impact on the RFC was the German bombing of London. Upon being summoned to London to meet David Lloyd George, Trenchard was told plans for revenge attacks on Germans cities including Mannheim. Encouraged by the Prime Minister, Trenchard focused his energy on bombing and attacking the German rear.

The first bombing attack took place on 17th October 1917 when the RFC attacked the Burback iron foundry and the railway lines. This was quickly followed by a long-range night-time bombing on 24th October. Both provided the government with propaganda material but Trenchard felt it was splitting his forces and wanted to concentrate on using bombing to support the troops on the ground.

In December 1917, Trenchard was appointed Chief of the Air Staff in the new Air Ministry but he struggled to get on with the groups head, Lord Rothermere. |On 19th March 1918, Trenchard offered his resignation after Rothermere informed the Royal Naval Air Service that they would receive 4,000 new aeroplanes that did not exist. His resignation was accepted but he was summoned to Buckingham Palace to explain his resignation to the King. His views of Rothermere soon got back to the Prime Minister and on 25th April, Rothermere resigned.

On 15th June 1918, Trenchard was appointed General Offer Commanding the Independent Air Force, later the Royal Air Force, and was able to begin carrying out aids on German airfields, railways and industry centres. He also began teaching the Americans about his new flying techniques and was appointed the commander of the Inter-Allied Independent Air Force in October 1918 thanks to his relationship with the French Air Force.

Immediately after the war, no one was entirely sure whether the Royal Air Force would continue so Trenchard’s first task was to quell 5,000 mutineers in January 1919. Having completed this without bloodshed, he was confined by Winston Churchill - Secretary of State for Air - persuaded him to take up the post off Chief of Air Staff on 31st March 1919.

Trenchard angered the Army Council by continuing to split the army and the RAF, creating new officer ranks and becoming Air Vice Marshall and then Air Marshall. He also founded the RAF’s officer training collage and the RAF Staff College. Additionally, he had the Royal Naval Air Service absorbed into the RAF, which angered First Sea Lord Admiral Beatty.

The RAF continued to be used across the British Empire during the 1920s and Trenchard also continued to push for better training, launching the University Air Squadron and introducing it to Oxford, Cambridge and London universities.

Trenchard was engaged in an almost 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.

Trenchard went on to work for the Goodyear Tyre Company before being offered the position of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. In this role, he established the police training college at Hendon in 1934. In November 1935 he left the police and the following year he became Viscount Trenchard.

Trenchard offered his services to the government as World War Two approached but they were not accepted. He was later offered posts during the early years of the war but declined them all. Hugh Trenchard died on 10th February 1956 aged 83.

MLA Citation/Reference

"Hugh Trenchard". 2023. Web.