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The Royal Naval Air Service and the Evolution of Naval Aviation in Britain, 1914-1918

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was a transformative military organisation that established the role of aviation within the Royal Navy during the First World War. The history of the RNAS, despite its immense significance, remains compartmentalized into specialized studies, ultimately overshadowed by the historiography of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the early Royal Air Force (RAF). The important RNAS practitioners who developed Britain’s naval aviation between 1914-1918 have as a result been marginalized in comparison to the better known history of the Fleet Air Arm, the organisation that ultimately succeeded the RNAS in the interwar period and beyond. This thesis unifies the historiography of Britain’s First World War naval aviation, and reassess the significance of the administrators and practitioners who created Britain’s naval air power.
Utilizing a thematic approach this thesis evaluates the successes and failures of Britain’s naval aviation development during the First World War. Through an examination of the history of the RNAS, the thesis considers the evolution of four aspects of Britain’s naval aviation: airpower for the fleet, anti-submarine warfare (ASW), the Royal Navy's pioneering introduction of long-range bombing, and the maritime air defence of Britain. The thesis concludes that the RNAS functioned not only as an auxiliary to the Navy's existing and traditional roles, but also changed the fundamental manner in which operations were conducted, whether at sea, over land, or in the air. The RNAS pioneered many of the aspects of naval aviation and airpower that are considered core roles of naval air forces today, however, the practitioners who made possible this revolution in warfare and the administrators who oversaw it remain relatively obscure. Wartime prioritization, technological improvement (and limitations), inter-service debate and indeed personal and service-wide rivalries, all shaped the Royal Navy’s approach to naval aviation. The thesis argues that a gradual transformation occurred over the course of the war, with naval aviation emerging from an uncertain auxiliary to a decisive instrument.
Original languageEnglish
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Award date2018

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