The Principles of War

A year or so ago I went through the papers of Air Marshal Stephen Strafford, who in 1944 served as Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory‘s Chief of Operations and Plans at the Allied Expeditionary Air Force.

In his papers I came across an interesting pamphlet entitled, More Asp Ad Astra: The Lighter Side of Ten Years ‘Hard’, 1938-1948. This is a collection on light-hearted poems and verses written by various officers including Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. In it I found this great little poem on the principles of war.

By day and night we sit and plan,

Devising means whereby we can,

Forget all we have learned of yore,

And flout the principles of war.

Napoleon, at the crucial spot,

Might concentrate all he had got,

Napoleon’s dead; his teaching’s worse;

Disperse, we say, disperse, disperse,

The why should we maintain the aim

And think on Monday just the same

As we had thought on Friday night?

Variety is always right.

Mobility to us implies

Some wild and hare-brained enterprise.

Wherein our meager forces are

Sent furthest from the real war.

‘The air force weapon is the bomb’;

So says our manual, but from

Such horrid thought we always shrink

And only of the fighter think

One principle alone we heed –

To mystify and mislead;

The only folk we don’t surprise

Are those we term our enemies

This was written by Air Vice Marshal Eric B C Betts and despite it lighthearted nature it actually really explores the problems of strategy and the confusion it brings to even those at the highest levels. It highlight the ambiguity and challenges that a senior command faces. It perfectly encapsulates many of the themes RAF officers were taught at the RAF Staff College at Andover in this period. Notably Betts was on the 1st Staff Course at Andover when it opened in 1922.  His comments on the importance of the bomb seem especially pertinent.

By Ross Mahoney, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

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