N E W S F E E D S >>>
April 1982 Index     Bulletins Index

Caithness Field Club

Viscount Thurso of Ulbster (Sir Archibald Sinclair) & His Contribution As Secretary of State For Air 1940-45P.
R. Myers

The bust of Viscount Thurso of Ulbster situated at the head of Sir Archibald Road in Thurso commemorates the memory of a great Liberal politician and probably the greatest political figure ever to emerge from Caithness. He first entered Parliament as M.P. for Caithness and Sutherland in 1922 and in the House of Commons he built up a reputation as a skilful Opposition speaker. A convinced Scottish Home Ruler, he was chiefly responsible for the Liberal "Tartan Book" which proposed devolution for Scotland on the lines of the Stormont system in Northern Ireland. Even though Sinclair became Secretary of State for Scotland in the new National Government of 1931, the post offered little scope for his talents and his desire for Home Rule during a period of economic recession, chronic unemployment and financial stringency. The Liberal ministers in the National Government became disenchanted with the Cabinet's decision to introduce trade protection in January 1932. In the summer of that year a series of discussion took place at Thurso Castle which led to the resignation of the Liberal ministers who were in favour of free trade.

The fortunes of the Liberal Party had declined drastically and in 1935 their strength in the Commons was further reduced to twenty-one M.P.s. It was in such a state of demoralization that Sinclair reluctantly took on the job of chairman of the Parliamentary Party in 1935. Combining his own adroit handling of the Party's members and the advice and support of his old friend Harcourt Johnstone, Sinclair turned the Parliamentary Party into a force to be reckoned with, a force which belied its numbers in Parliament and its national popularity. Under Sinclair the Liberals opposed the Government's policy of appeasement towards Hitler and Mussolini and advocated collective security through the League of Nations with pressure for a strong air force and secure defences. Winston Churchill's opposition to his own party's appeasement policy had forced him into the political wilderness and Churchill enthusiastically embraced the Liberals' views on rearmament in his campaign for 'Arms and the Covenant'. In the House of Commons, Sinclair and Churchill cemented their earlier friendship which had matured during World War I. Both men had much in common and there had developed an almost father and son relationship. Sinclair could write to Churchill in 1916 of "my keen longing to serve you in politics - more humbly but more energetically than I have been able to in war". In 1938 Sinclair and Churchill were of one voice in condemning the Munich agreement or urging an understanding with Russia. They also combined to seek the establishment of a Ministry of Supply.

In spite of the upheaval of national politics and the ever-growing crisis in Europe, Sinclair did not neglect his constituency which was the largest, geographically, in the United Kingdom. He took care to visit his constituents on annual summer tours, and otherwise kept in touch through his party agent Captain Barrogill Keith, who was also the factor of his estate.

At the outbreak of war in September 1939 Chamberlain invited Sinclair to accept office on behalf of the Liberals, an invitation which Sinclair declined. In the critical Commons debate on 7-8 May 1940, Sinclair joined with Attlee, Lloyd Ceorge, Amery, and others in telling Chamberlain to go. There was some gleeful spite in the speeches, although every one professed to be performing a painful public duty. On 10 May Churchill became Prime Minister and he appointed Sinclair, his old friend and ally, as Secretary of State for Air. Other appointments to the defence departments included Mr. Anthony Eden (Conservative) as Minister for War and Mr. A. V. Alexander (Labour) as First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill had to overcome a considerable amount of opposition to install Sinclair as Air Minister, for his followers in the Liberal Party felt that he deserved a place in the War Cabinet. Churchill had to compromise by proposing that Sinclair should join the War Cabinet when matters of major political importance were being discussed. At this stage Sinclair had little grasp of the technical considerations that governed, for instance, the whole concept of strategic bombing, something with which he would become closely involved with as the war progressed. Time was needed for Sinclair to become acquainted with his new task before he could commit himself to recommendations and decisions of far-reaching importance.

Following the German attack in the West, the choice for the Air Ministry lay between attacking Germany and attacking the German forward armies or retaining air strength to defend the United Kingdom. Sinclair explained to the War Cabinet on 13 May that sixty squadrons were needed for the defence of the United Kingdom: thirty-nine were in being, and he was opposed to any further use of fighters outside home borders especially in France. Although this plan was unpopular with Churchill, Sinclair and Sir Cyril Newall, the Chief of the Air Staff, gave full support to Air Chief Marshal Dowding's pleas to stop the dissipation of his valuable fighter squadrons.

An offensive strategy directed at hitting back at the enemy had to be found and owing to the vulnerability of the R.A.F.'s bombers in daylight operations, Sinclair desired the extension of night-time bombing operations. This did not include night troop movements, pontoon bridges and similar targets which would be both wasteful and difficult for heavy bombers to attack. Instead Sinclair proposed that the targets should include marshalling yards, oil refineries, the industry of the Ruhr valley, the oil stores of Leipzig and the docks of Bremen and Hamburg. In this he was enthusiastically supported by both Newall and Dowding. Bombing raids were mounted on these targets but with correspondingly lamentable standards of accuracy.

During the height of the Battle of Britain, Sinclair's department the Air Ministry, was trying to combat the serious shortage of fighter aircraft. Twenty-six fighters were being written off each day but the Ministry's figures took no account of damaged aircraft, only of total losses. Sinclair was forced to admit that there were only 288 fighters, eleven days' supply, still in reserve. The losses had eaten into Britain's reserves to the tune of 45 per cent. If Britain's aircraft factories and storage units had come under concentrated pinpoint attacks by lone bombers, the position would have been desperate.

It was during the Battle of Britain that Sir Archibald Sinclair made one of those gaffes which all public figures must dread making. He was visiting the pilots of No. 64 Squadron at Kenley who were ranged beside their aeroplanes. The pilots could scarcely contain their laughter as Sinclair paid warm tribute to these Hurricane pilots of No.12 Group; until then to the best of their belief, they had been Spitfire pilots of No. 11 Group.

It would take a full-scale biography of Sinclair to assess his contribution as Air Minister but there can be no doubt that his most vital contribution was to fight for the allocation of manpower needed to sustain the bomber offensive. It was an offensive which became extremely costly of aircrews' lives and the effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaign still remains a controversial issue with historians. Although Sinclair had to rely to a great extent on the professional judgement of the air marshals, he was always ready to champion them and enjoyed a special relationship with the Prime Minister. For instance, in October 1940, he resisted Admiralty attempts to gain control of R.A.F. Coastal Command. The Admiralty were supported by the First Lord, A. V. Alexander, Lord Beaverbrook, and the Prime Minister himself, who was never a great friend of the Air Ministry (hence his creation of the separate Ministry of Aircraft Production). Sinclair angrily resented accusations that the Air Ministry had treated Coastal Command as the Cinderella of the Air Force. He argued that its expansion had been hampered by quite uncontrollable developments, and his Ministry were prepared to consider any proposals to end dearth in this vital sector. He was able to produce figures to show that there had been a relatively greater increase in the strength of Coastal Command than in any other command of the R.A.F. (There were two Coastal Command stations in his own constituency, namely at Wick and its satellite at Skitten.)

There was further conflict with the Admiralty in March 1942 when Sinclair was prominent in the struggle to prevent the Admiralty diverting bombers from strategic bombing to long-range reconnaissance duties in the Battle of the Atlantic, and obtained Churchill's consent for a resumption of the full bombing offensive. In a speech in the House of Commons on 4 March 1942, Sinclair emphasized that Bomber Command's primary task was striking at the heart of Germany, and that in 1942, the R.A.F.'s bombers were still the only means at Britain's disposal of bringing home the war to the enemy nation.

In that same month the Prime Minister's scientific adviser, Professor Lindemann - better known as Lord Cherwell, wrote a famous memorandum to Churchill in which he argued that, with the strength now becoming available to it, Bomber Command could systematically destroy the homes of the great majority of the inhabitants of Germany's fifty-eight largest cities. This, he claimed, would destroy the workers' morale and Germany's will to continue fighting. Sinclair commented that he found the argument proposing area bombing, "simple, clear and convincing". Although he did have earlier private misgivings Sinclair was to become an assiduous apologist for area bombing and as Air Minister, he was always the R.A.F.'s political representative rather than its master. lie relied on the "common sense" judgement that a weapon so destructive as bombing must also be effective: any Air Minister who thought differently would not have survived the wrath of the air marshals for long.

There was moral revulsion from several important public figures who opposed the use of bombing to terrorize and kill civilians. Among them was Bishop Bell of Chichester, who throughout the war was the most persistent and articulate critic of the bomber offensive. Another was the 4th Marquess of Salisbury, head of the famous Cecil family, who wrote to Sinclair expressing fears that, by area bombing the Allies were "losing moral superiority to the Germans". However the moral issue did not cause Sinclair any difficulty, for he believed that the German people must suffer for a war which was their own responsibility, a harsh view which most people accepted in the heat of the conflict. Fulfilling his role as the R.A.F.'s political representative, Sinclair thought it wise not to explain the nature of the bombing offensive too frankly in public, in case [it] was stirred up on grounds of moral conscience and the morale of the bomber crews affected. An illustration of this is a Commons reply by Sinclair to an opponent of area bombing: "The targets of Bomber Command are always military, but night bombing of military objectives necessarily involves bombing the area in which they are situated". An earlier speech by Sinclair produced reaction from Dr. Geobbels, who wrote in his diary on 3rd March 1943: "The English Minister for Air delivered a speech that puts into the shade anything ever said. He proclaimed the British intention of causing a German migration.... from the big cities. The cynicism underlying such a statement simply cannot be beaten".

There can be no doubt that area bombing caused a great deal of material damage but was responsible for only a very small part of the fall in German industrial production by the spring, of 1945, and in terms of bombing effect was also a very costly way of achieving the results they did achieve. In the light of this, one is led to assume that Bomber Command's appalling casualty rate was all in vain but the controversy over area bombing has obscured the achievements of the Allied bombers in gaining mastery of the air and the disruption of the enemy's communications which made possible the D-day landings. When he introduced the Air estimates on 6 March 1945, Sir Archibald Sinclair paid tribute to the achievements of the entire Royal Air Force and especially to Bomber Command. It was the bombers which had destroyed a third of the U-boats in their dockyards and in their pens. They had sunk the powerful battleship "Tirpitz". Thirty thousand tons of mines had been dropped in enemy waters with disastrous results for enemy shipping. He praised the work of Coastal Command which had worked in conjunction with the Royal Navy in combatting the U-boat menace and in protecting the trade routes. Tribute was also paid to the Special Duties units of the R.A.F. which supplied arms to the resistance movements in Occupied Europe and was also responsible for flying in or bringing out secret agents and members of the resistance.

His preoccupation with the Air Ministry during the war years compelled Sinclair to neglect his constituency and in the General Election of May 1945 he lost his seat in what was probably the closest fought contest in any British constituency. Each of the three candidates polled a third of the votes and only a mere sixty-four votes separated the three. Another prominent Liberal to lose his seat was Sir William Beveridge, author of The Beveridge Report on social security.

After failing to be re-elected in 1950, he accepted a peerage in the first honours list of the post-war Churchill Government, and was created Viscount Thurso of Ulbster in 1952. Illness thwarted plans for him to re-enter politics as Liberal leader in the House of Lords and he did not take his seat until 1954. For three years he was able to play a prominent part in the debates of the upper house, but it was his fate to spend the remainder of his life as an invalid.

Sinclair's contribution as a Government minister is best summed up from his own personal viewpoint. He maintained that it was not the job of a politician to take on the role of expert in any particular branch of knowledge which experts possessed. The task of the politician was to organize, to persuade, and to co-ordinate. It was exactly this role that Sir Archibald Sinclair fulfilled so ably as Secretary of State for Air between 1940 and 1945.

Paul Addison, Dictionary of National Biography, O.U.P. 1981
1961 - 1970
Richard Collier, Eagle Day, the Battle of Britain, London 1980
Patrick Cosgrave, Churchill at War Vol. 1, London 1974
Sir John Hammerton, Ed., The Second Great War, Nine Vols.
Max Hastings, Bomber Command, London 1979
Robert Jackson, Before the Storm, London 1972

Published in April 1982 Bulletin