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RAF in plot against Fleet Air Arm again

1930s, 1970s ... disaster every time they do it

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Opinion In a bizarre repeat of history, reports have it that the Royal Air Force is once again seeking to take over the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy - a sure sign that the economy really is in desperate trouble. Just as it has meant more than once in the past, a successful RAF bid to grab a greater share of the taxes in tough economic times is likely to mean soldiers and sailors dying unnecessarily in years to come.

The Sunday Times reported on the new RAF takeover push yesterday, which is apparently operating under the unofficial slogan "one nation, one air force". It appears that Air Marshals Glenn Torpy and Jock Stirrup, heads of the RAF and of all three services respectively, would like to shut down the joint RN/RAF Harrier jumpjet force, which would put an end to fixed-wing aviation in the Navy.

When the two planned new aircraft carriers finally arrive - it is an open secret that there are plans to delay the ships - their air groups would naturally be furnished by the RAF, which would by that point be the only British service set up to fly jets.

We've been here before, more than once.

In the dark days of the 1920s and 30s, against the background of the General Strike and the Jarrow March, the cry for economies placed the Fleet Air Arm under RAF ownership in just the sort of plan now developing. There was one nation, and one air force. As one would expect, the Fleet Air Arm was the Cinderella of the RAF, neglected in favour of the strategic deep bombers which the air service institutionally loved (and continues to love) more than anything else.

In 1939, on the eve of war, when the Royal Navy finally regained control of its own aircraft, it was left with pitifully weak air cover. The fleet's main strike plane - the famous Swordfish, aka "the Stringbag" - was an aged biplane, almost a flying antique. The service never acquired a proper carrier fighter through the whole war, as the pre-war RAF had seen no need for such a thing - indeed, had felt little enough need for landbased fighters in some quarters. The fact that carriers had served since World War I as bases for the RAF rather than as warships had led the navy to buy too few of them and to hope wistfully that big-gun battleships might retain their old dominance.

As the wasteful, murderous strategic bombing campaigns by the Luftwaffe and RAF began, slaughtering civilians in droves at the cost of thousands of heroically brave airmen, achieving almost nothing in the process, the Navy was cut to bits for lack of seaborne air cover. The battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk by Japanese air attack, with more than eight hundred men lost. Another nine ships were sunk and many more battered almost into wrecks in the evacuation of Crete, where again no air cover was forthcoming. In addition to almost two thousand sailors killed, a thousand soldiers died in the land fighting and thousands more were captured.

All through the war the RN suffered from lack of carriers and lack of planes to fly from them, and had to make desperate efforts to catch up. By the end of the fighting, every convoy finally had an escort carrier - largely ending the horrifying bloodletting of the early Atlantic war. Every fleet had a fleet carrier. The aircraft carrier had finally replaced the battleship as the main unit of naval power in all sensible people's minds.

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