Air Chief Marshal Sir Frederick Rosier had a long and distinguished career in the Royal Air Force. Accepting a short service commission in 1935, he was the last Air Officer Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command before it merged with Bomber and Coastal Command in 1968 to form Strike Command. This autobiography, written with his son David who finished it after his father’s death in 1998, highlights many interesting facets of service in the RAF during two pivotal events in twentieth century history; the Second World War and the Cold War. Concerning the former, this memoir gives us a view from a middle ranking officer who served in both frontline and staff positions during the war. Regarding the latter, we have a view of the Cold War and its threats from the perspective of an officer rising to senior command. As such, it illustrates many of the challenges and ambiguities associated with senior command positions.
The genres of autobiographies and memoirs, and the associated field of biography, remain an ever popular and important element of military history. While it is often easy to criticise biographers of hagiography, and auto biographers of viewing the past through the prism of hindsight, they do offer a valuable insight to the past. Indeed as Jeremy Black has noted regarding biography, this form of writing offers a commercially viable method of making operational military history accessible to wider audiences. Additionally it is an important source for historians seeking to understand the period. As Sebastian Cox has lamented in the foreword to the recent biography of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Michael Beetham, there are too few works on, or written by, senior RAF officers of the Cold War era. Part of the problem here relates to the changing rules governing how officers keep and collate personal papers from their time in service. Indeed, we are unlikely to see the type of voluminous papers that we see with such former senior officers as Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard and Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten. Changes in regulations now limit the papers that retiring officers can take with them; they are normally limited to purely personal correspondence. Therefore, it has become more important that the service experience of these men be recorded. In this vein, memoirs and autobiographies offer a useful adjunct to the historians’ toolkit as they, just like oral history, can offer a personal view on many of the events that we read about in official archival sources.
Most interesting to this reader is that fact that Rosier’s career offers an interesting insight to the nature of career progression and leadership development in the RAF. Rosier’s career illustrates that there was no split between officers offered permanent or short service commission. In 1919, Trenchard had envisaged a system split between permanent and short service officers. Typically, it was expected that those taking a short service commission would have gone to university. Short service officers were to be those on whom any rapid expansion of the RAF would be based, as this system produced a cadre of well-trained officers imbued with the ‘Air Force Spirit’. Rosier does not typically fit the mould of a short service officer as he did not attend university. However, this was not down to a lack of desire but rather down his family’s lack of finances (p. 17). Rosier also followed the typical route to senior command with attendance at both the RAF Staff College in 1946 (pp.156-162) and the Imperial Defence College in 1957 (pp. 208-214). Rosier also spent time as Directing Staff at the recently opened Joint Services Staff College during 1950-52 (pp. 186-190). However, his reminisce about his time as a student at Staff College highlights a key problem with autobiographies; the issue of confusion. Rosier laments that the inter-war course at the Staff College had been two years. However, this is inaccurate at they were only a year, except for the 6th and 7th Course, which had been fifteen months due to realigning the academic year from April to March to January to December in the late 1920s.
Rosier’s posting from the Central Fighter Establishment, where he was Group Captain Operations, to Fighter Command as Group Captain Plans in 1954 also highlights the process of succession planning in the RAF. It shows the influence that key officers had in determining someone’s career. Rosier relates that he had expected a posting to the Royal Aircraft Establishment after the CFE but he then found out that he was to go to Fighter Command as Group Captain Plans (pp. 200-201). This was an unexpected turns of events as he has not served in plans up this point in his career. The then head of Fighter Command, Air Marshal Sir Dermot Boyle, determined this turn of events. It is clear that this posting was designed to give Rosier experience of working with the other services and with allies; a key prerequisite for senior command. From the time of Marshals of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal and Sir John Slessor working in a plans position had been a key marker for continued progression in the RAF. Indeed, after Fighter Command Rosier went on to be Director of Plans in the Air Ministry in 1958 after having spent time at the Imperial Defence College. Again, he was moved into the position by Boyle who was by this time CAS.
In addition to this important period of staff work Rosier inter-weaved his career with significant periods as an operational fighter commander. This notably included time in North Africa during the Second World War where he was, alongside Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross, a key fighter leader in the Western Desert Air Force. During this period he was awarded the DSO. Postings within Fighter Command continued in the post-war era. Unlike another near contemporary with fighter experience, Air Chief Marshal Sir Harry Broadhurst, Rosier’s career remained closely linked to the development of Fighter Command. The only exception to this was his time as Senior Air Staff Officer at Transport Command before he took over at Fighter Command in 1966. This final command was one that he was eminently qualified to hold. In the context of the Cold War Rosier also spent time working within the coalition system with time spent working with allies in both NATO and CENTO; work that his time working in plans had made him well qualified to undertake.
In conclusion, this is a very valuable autobiography of a senior RAF officer. In addition to the key facets discussed above this book provides an excellent insight into life in the RAF in both war and peace. It gives some wonderful insights into key personalities of the period. For example, Rosier recalls his visit to the Soviet Union in June 1956 while he was at Fighter Command. His most notable recollection was an incident during an open-air reception at the Kremlin where both Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev got drunk and related in their respective speeches how much they disliked each other (pp. 205-206). This book is recommended to anyone with an interest in the RAF.
By Ross Mahoney, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham
Printable version can be downloaded here.